Book Review: The Vegetarian

“The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang

Publication: Hogarth; February 2, 2016

vegetarianSynopsis: Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize

A beautiful, unsettling novel about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.
Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.

Review: I have been anxiously awaiting this novel to arrive in the mail and today I knocked it out in about 2 hours. Let me begin by saying, “The Vegetarian” does not leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling…

Yeong-hye and her husband admittedly live an unremarkable life and are not exactly soul mates joined at the hip. They go through each day the same with limited interaction or connection between them. One night her husband finds her in the kitchen, standing almost catatonic, saying only that she had a dream. The next morning he awakes, mad and late for work, to find Yeong-hye clearing the refrigerator and freezer of all meat and dairy, again stating that she had a dream.

Yeong-hye’s husband is infuriated by her sudden switch to a vegetarian diet, so he contacts his and her family members for help. Everyone expresses sorrow and shame over her behavior, pledging to bring her to her senses at their next family gathering. The so-called gathering consists of yelling, berating, belittling, and Yeong-hye cutting her wrists in front of everyone after being hit by her father several times and having pork forced into her mouth.

Fast forward a few months and Yeong-hye’s husband has left her and she is living alone in an apartment, when suddenly her brother-in-law starts fantasizing about her. He approaches her to assist him with an “artistic project,” which results in destroying him and Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. Yeong-hye deteriorates even further, but the events also continue to destroy In-hye as well. The novel poses the question, did this woman’s one decision to become a vegetarian destroy their families or is there some underlying cause for her dream and everything that came after?

This novel is written from three different points of view, but never from Yeong-hye’s. It starts with her husband, then her brother-in-law, and then her sister. I have no issue with multiple POVs, however, I felt like there was a lot of repetition in each segment. We know she quit eating meat and everyone flipped out, so no need to drag that out repeatedly. The only real revelation during the brother-in-law’s part was that he was a freak/voyeur/cheater and the new information in the sister’s section was that their Dad beat the crap out of Yeong-hye when she was young and that In-hye is actually going a little crazy herself.

To be completely honest, I really don’t know if Yeong-hye was initially mentally ill or just a product of the horrible people in her life. I know that she began to think of herself as a tree, which probably deserves some sort of DSMV diagnosis, but the question is which came first, the mental illness or being a vegetarian? What I do know is that although this is translated from Korean to English, I was still blown away by the beautiful writing. The writing and language flowed seamlessly even when POV changed. I also have a great appreciation for the subject matter and the psychological and sociological questions it raises about family and normalcy.

Has anyone else read this novel? If so, I was totally confused by In-hye’s part at the end about her son and would love some feedback!

Purchase “The Vegetarian” on Amazon.

Learn more about Han Kang by visiting her web page.

*Disclaimer: I received this novel from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.




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