The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

This short novel, of three interlinked stories is a startling and unusual read. Set in contemporary South Korea, it features a young married woman, Yeong-hye, who decides one day, out of the blue, to give up eating meat.

veggie

Such a seemingly innocuous decision will end up having devastating consequences both for Yeong-hye herself and for her wider family members. Han Kang even seems to go as far as to suggest that this one small act of defiance can threaten the very fabric of Korean society that values conformity, family values and obedience in women above all else.

The novel is structured in three parts. In the first section, Yeong-hye’s husband Mr Cheong narrates. As the book opens, he believes his wife to be a very ordinary woman and that is the way he likes it.

Ultimately, I settled for a job where I would be provided with a decent monthly salary in return for diligently carrying out my allotted tasks, at a company whose small size meant they would value my unremarkable skills. And so it was natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world. As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families; they would only ever have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.

He is not unhappy to be with her, but neither is their marriage driven by any great passion. Her sudden decision to become a vegetarian, following a terrifying dream, is the first crack in this very ordinary marriage. His concern is less for his wife and more for how her behaviour will impact upon his standing and eventually, at a family dinner, tensions come to a horrifying conclusion.

The middle section of the book focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, known only as J, a video artist who becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye’s body.

It called to mind something ancient, something pre-evolutionary, or else perhaps a mark of photosynthesis, and he realized to his surprise that there was nothing at all sexual about it; it was more vegetal than sexual.

They begin an erotic, charged affair and when it is discovered, Yeong-hye is committed to hospital.

The final section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister, Ing-hye, who struggles with her sense of familial duty. She continues to look after the sister who has wrecked her marriage, and comes to a slow understanding of Yeong-hye’s need for self-destruction.

She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

Throughout this, Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism becomes more strident until she is refusing all food and demanding only water. It slowly becomes clear that her reality and the reality of those around her is an incredibly fragile thing.

In all three parts of the book, Han Kang shows how society constrains the individual, through family responsibility, marital conformity and institutional rules to the extent that natural desires and passions are dangerously contained. Yeong-hye’s small act of rebellion, her decision to no longer eat meat, is the catalyst for a break down in norms and the internal world explodes out with violent and lustful consequences.

The violence and the desire erupt seemingly from nowhere. Yeong-hye’s father, frustrated by his daughter’s defiance, assaults her and tries to force-feed her in front of her whole family. Yeong-hye responds by attempting to slit her wrists. In hospital, Yeong-hye is again force-fed, the violence of the episode feeling particularly brutal for taking place within a health-care institution.

In her attempt to establish her own identity, outside of the constraints that society places on her, Yeong-hye is crushed, vilified and mistreated, but clings on to the one thing she has control over – the decision to eat, or not to eat.

It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like.

The Vegetarian is a striking book, both for the subject matter and for the lush, potent imagery which raises provocative questions about bodily autonomy, desire and relationships. Han Kang is well served by translator Deborah Smith, who manages to convey the differing voices and rising tensions of each section of the novel.

han-kang_the-vegetarian

My edition of The Vegetarian is bookended by a short story The Fruits of My Woman from which The Vegetarian stems. It’s interesting to see how the much more supernatural elements of that story are pared back in the novel. In the story, the main character literally turns into a plant, but this is shown as an escape from her regimented life – a way for her body, ironically, to find freedom.

I read The Vegetarian as part of my on-going Novels in Translation 2018 challenge and it has been my highlight so far. A worthy winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

novels in translation Reading Challenge

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

29 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Great review! I absolutely adore this book. I found it mesmerizing and Han Kang’s language incredible powerful in its conciseness (if that makes sense at all).

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  2. “magnificent irresponsibility” is such a great phrase—I feel like it really gets at the heart of how women who put their own desires first are vilified.

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  3. Hi Cathy, I wasn’t sure I would be interested in this book when I began reading your review, but as I read, I could see the big impact of her decision to not eat meat and how it triggers so much family tension. Glad to have caught this!

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  4. Yes, I agree with it being a worthy winner of the MBIP 2016. I remember it being one of my favorites of the long list that year, and found it so very powerful. I also like the elements of magical realism, although the ending still confuses me a little. Didn’t she grow into a tree herself? Or become planted or something? All I can think of is “from dust you have come and to dust you shall return”.

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  5. “Han Kang shows how society constrains the individual, through family responsibility, marital conformity and institutional rules to the extent that natural desires and passions are dangerously contained.” – This is so on point! I lived in South Korea for 2 years and, after reading this, I could definitely connect to what Kang was trying to say about the overwhelming sense of conformity and lack of individuality that’s prevalent there. Great review, Cathy!

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  6. Good book! I read it as a reading group selection and I’ve read it twice. The first time was really rough but the second time I got a whole lot more out of it and if I were to read it a third time I would have so much sympathy for Yeong-hye that … oh wow. My own opinion is that she went into vegetarianism because of a dream and that is fine with me but it wasn’t okay with her family or society. On the second reading I realized she was really mentally ill, anorexia nervosa. I think it’s about how society treats the mentally ill. Very sad book.

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  7. I had no idea this book stemmed from a short story! It’s so intense and uncomfortable that I wanted to put it down several times, but the writing kept me hooked. It’s so layered that I still feel like I don’t understand it completely. Great review!

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  8. This sounds like a great combination of subject matter, prose style and visual imagery. Everything working in harmony to create a striking effect. Terrific review, Cathy. It’s nice to see another perspective on this novella two years on from the MBIP win.

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  9. I’m still feeling the stirrings of this book, it affected me deeply – well, disturbed me, I suppose, when I read it. I’d love to read that short story – my edition didn’t have it, I shall have to check the library! In any case, you’ve reminded me I have another Han Kang novel on my shelves, as yet unread – not for long!

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  10. My book group really enjoyed this (my choice!)
    The ultimate test from one of them – does it have “all of life” in it, and yes it passed that, remarkable for such a small volume.

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