Literature

Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

“Sister…all the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters.”

Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang
Publication: 2007
Rating: 3/5 stars
CW/TW: abuse, rape, sexual assault

The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a relatively short read (the English edition clocks in at 188 pages), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Originally published in 2007 in South Korea, The Vegetarian tells the story of Yeong-hye, an unremarkable woman who does unremarkable things…until the nightmares start. She begins having dreams – cruel, brutal dreams – that torture her. To get them to stop, she gives up meat (and eggs and dairy), much to the frustration of her husband, who finds her purging the fridge of raw meat.81foffskpyl

Needless to say, her choice is not accepted. Her husband believes the only reason someone should become vegetarian is to lose weight. In fact, he says “Of course, Buddhist priests who have taken certain vows are morally obligated not to participate in the destruction of life, but surely not even impressionable young girls take it quite that far,” effectively disparaging every person, young girl or not, who have left meat and animal products behind for ethical reasons.

Along with that, everyone around Yeong-hye becomes a health expert, something vegans and vegetarians know all too well. “You need meat to survive.” “What about all of the nutrients meat provides?” “You have no energy – that means you have to eat meat!” The truth is that Yeong-hye is barely surviving, but that’s due to her mental health and the fact that she won’t eat anything and has nothing at all to do with her choosing to not eat meat. After all, the even more “restrictive” vegan diet is known for being healthy.

Unfortunately, we never really get Yeong-hye’s perspective. The novel is told from three different points-of-view, none of which are the vegetarian in question. First is her husband, a boring man who finds his wife to be boring. Mr. Cheong is selfish and refuses to take responsibility for himself. He yells at Yeong-hye for not waking him up one morning, making him late, and is upset that he has to get ready for work on his own without her handing him his things. He only thinks of how Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism affects him, even though he only eats one meal a day with her. He helps his father-in-law force-feed Yeong-hye meat. He rapes her. In the end, he leaves Yeong-hye, unwilling to deal with her mental state and viewing himself as the victim. He’s a horrible man and certainly just as “uninteresting” – if not more so – as he believes Yeong-hye to be, except he’s much, much worse.

The second part is told from Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s perspective. A (failing) artist, he becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye and convinces her to take part in his artistic endeavor. By this point, Yeong-hye’s health has improved. She’s eating more, talking more, and even considering getting a job. He doesn’t really care about that though: he just wants her to take off her clothes, paint her, and video-tape her…and then maybe convince her to do it again but with a man, preferably him. As with Mr. Cheong, there’s rape –  the rape of Yeong-hye and her sister – so it appears that no man is good in The Vegetarian.

Yeong-hye’s sister and Mr. Cheong’s estranged wife, In-hye, takes center stage in the third and final part. Yeong-hye becomes plant-like once again, refusing to eat anything. As the older sister, she feels responsible for all that has happened to Yeong-hye. She should have stopped her father from harming her sister, she should have prevented Yeong-hye from marrying Mr. Cheong, she should have kept her husband away from her sister…In-hye carries many burdens. The breadwinner, the always-there parent, the dutiful daughter, the protective sister. In the end, In-hye understands. She understands why her sister got to this point. In-hye could have reached that point as well. 

The Vegetarian is a complex read. I felt that, with the three perspectives, there was so much I was missing out on. With that being said, the story was gripping, and I truly felt for Yeong-hye and In-hye and wanted to know what happened to both of them, hoping for the best. Interestingly, the ending is pretty ambiguous, meaning it’s open to interpretation. We don’t know for sure how life turns out for the women, good or bad.

Perhaps the novel was too *literary* for me (I have become accustomed to much lighter reads in recent months), so maybe I’ve lost my ability to properly analyze literature. Or maybe things were lost in translation – after all, British translator Deborah Smith has been accused of taking some liberties in the English translation.

Or the book just isn’t for me. And that’s okay too.

While I don’t know what to make of The Vegetarian, I’m still thinking about it days later, I’m still trying to figure out what Han Kang wanted to say, what I was supposed to get out of it. I’m still not sure. 

I know I’m disgusted by the behavior of the men in the novel – their forcefulness, selfishness. I know I’m sorry for the women in the novel – Yeong-hye’s abuse, In-hye’s guilt. I know I wish I the novel had Yeong-hye’s perspective – her thoughts on her husband, father, sister, and meat. I know I’m more determined than ever to prove that vegetarian and vegan lifestyles amount to more than just a “plant-like” existence, where we are weak without meat.

So maybe I did get something out of The Vegetarian. I just don’t know if it’s what Han Kang wanted me to…or if that even matters. 


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