The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Book Review)

The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian by Han Kang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Everybody else is focused is on mental illness, and while that’s the standpoint from which Yeong-hye was treated, I’m not sure that’s what it’s all about. What came to my mind was self-evolution.

Jacket blurb: “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.”

Comfreak Pixabay CC0 PD

Comfreak/Pixabay CC0 PD

This is an odd, compelling, sometimes creepy, sometimes sensual event of a book. I’m not sure what to think of it, even two days after finishing.

“I’m not an animal anymore, sister,” she said, first scanning the empty ward as if about to disclose a momentous secret. “I don’t need to eat, not now. I can live without it. All I need is sunlight.”

“What are you talking about? Do you really think you’ve turned into a tree? How could a plant talk? How can you think these things?”

“You’re right. Soon now, words and thoughts will all disappear. Soon.” Yeong-hye burst into laughter, then sighed. “Very soon. Just a bit longer to wait, sister.”

And as Yeong-hye said not long after: “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

I may be missing a lot of the allegory, being unfamiliar with Korean culture. But there are many things in here through which Yeong-hye may have chosen to evolve: social mores and conformity; emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; accepted ideas of health and well-being; sexuality and sensuality and art; the power we hold over others and the power they hold over us; the echoing longing for a spiritual connection with the physical world we are trapped in.

A short novel at 188 pages, this one has left me thinking and a bit unsettled. I may have to read it two or three more times before I start to really get it. But this is where I am for now. Excellent read, culled from the 2016 Man Booker Prize list.

Bookshelves: asian-culture, allegory, current-social-issues, death-and-dying, literary-fiction, literature-with-a-capital-l, kafkaesque, man-booker-winner

New words:

Zelkova tree – also known as Japanese elm, frequently used in bonsai art

Mongolian mark: a bluish birthmark that occurs primarily in people of color, usually disappearing by age 5 or so


Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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