Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, The Vegetarian is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

OK. So, allegorical is a stretch, but perhaps I don’t know enough about South Korea to get said “allegory.” I think it may have something to do with the fact that women are treated like cattle, but I don’t know? Let me know if I’m in the right direction here, if you’ve also read the novel.

Also, I’ve heard this book called Kafka-esque and that’s just ridiculous for a number of reasons. She may want to be a plant. But she does not turn into one. This is not an “I’m suddenly a bug!” story. But I’ll not harp on it.

The reason I chose to read this book was because I, for one, have been a vegetarian/vegan going on 6 years now and am now quite interested in vegheads-as-characters because there aren’t many and, when there are, they are usually the butt of jokes, or not taken seriously.

That’s not to say that the main character in this novel, Yeong-hye, is really vegetarian. At times she seems more anorexic than someone with convictions about food (she kills and bites a bird at one point, so I don’t think animal welfare or rights are involved in her decision). She also eliminates eggs and dairy from her diet, so one could say she is vegan. Thus, the title is a bit of a lie for for me. However, her eating habits are something she refuses to apologize for, which make her the strongest, most interesting veg character I’ve ever read.  But that’s not saying much.

She arguably plays into cliches with her “vegetarianism” – she is seen as sickly and weak. And crazy. At one point, her obsession with plants as life plays into her brother-in-law’s obsession with plants as art, leading to an odd affair (fun fact: adultery was illegal in South Korea until 2015). She is the manic pixie dream girl on that level. She goes from scary “other” (refusing peer pressure from her family to eat meat) to the objectified piece of meat.

She cannot win.

It is because of her one choice (arguably the one thing that has ever made her odd or special — her whole life being built around mediocre normalcy) that her whole family falls apart. Her one choice shows their selfishness. The story left me wondering how might her life and their lives have been different if they had just accepted her choice to become vegetarian — had asked her about her dream (the reason she gives up meat). By the time her sister thinks to blame herself, she is too far gone.

Despite being such a short book, it took too long to reach this conclusion. That, coupled with the poor portrayal of vegetarianism, is why I can only give this one star. It would have been a better novella.

Other reviews I agree with:

(However, piece of meat comment).
(Nah, I just don’t think Kang understands what vegetarianism is).
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

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