Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

채식주의자 / 강한

DISCLAIMER: I got this eARC for free from NetGalley.

Expected publication: February 2nd 2016 by Hogarth (first published October 30th 2007).

What a beautiful book. Disturbing, yes. Yet oh so tragically beautiful. My only “negative” was that I wasn’t reading it in the original Korean. But don’t get me wrong, this translation is pretty damn good.

This is my 2nd “translated to English” book in a row. One of my criticisms for The Dinner was about the translation. It lost some of the tone of the story. In this book, Deborah Smith was able to carry over the mood.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The Vegetarian is told in three parts, narrated by three people. The story revolves around Yeong-hye (영혜), a young Korean woman who suddenly decides to get rid of all the meat in her diet and go vegan. The title says “vegetarian” but she even quits eating butter and cheese. Her decision does not go well with the rest of her family. Yeong-hye physically threw out all the meat from her home which meant her husband could not eat meat as well. Her family staged an intervention that only made matters worse. Her one decision to go vegetarian/vegan sets off a domino effect among the rest of her loved ones.

Yeong-hye is described in the book to be incredibly plain. Even her husband says so. He narrates the first part of the book. He tells of his struggles with work, his wife and her sudden decision. “I had a dream” was the only reason she gave. The second part has quite a time jump. We see the story unfold through Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, J. Here, he describes his frustrations with his work, family life, and himself. This part of the novel reveals a twisted obsession with love, sex, and passion. Yeong-hye further sinks into insanity, further affecting those around her. The third part is told by her big sister, In-hye (인혜 언니), wife to J. Again, some time passes between parts 2 and 3. Yeong-hye is now just a shell of what she once was. She’d lost everything but In-hye still stayed by her. In-hye herself was unsure as to why she was still standing by her younger sister (여동생). If she were to continue, she risked to also lose herself and everything she had but if she leaves, she could not live with the thought that she abandoned someone she loved.

It’s hard to describe this novel. On the surface, it is one long character study of Yeong-hye and her relations. It can be a peek into the cultural differences between Korea and the rest of the world. Can this shed light on their opinions about vegetarianism? Did Yeong-hye have a reason to turn vegetarian – is this simply an act of rebellion?

One has to understand that it is different in Korea. It’s different in Asia in general. Tradition is very, very strong and what society thinks of a person is a huge influence. I’m not saying that they’re backwards… just… different. I can’t really explain it but having lived in both places (born and raised in Asia, now living in the USA) I can tell that there are huge differences, especially in opinions, between East and West. Personally, while I don’t agree with the way Yeong-hye’s family handled her diet choice, I do understand where the reaction roots from. I apologize if this review is a little vague and all over the place. You just have to experience this novel to find out.

Rating: 4/5. Four, because I really want to read this in the original Korean. While my understanding of the language is still a little elementary, I can read/write it enough and with the help of reference materials, I can surely slug through it.


3 thoughts on “Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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