A review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian
“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.“
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This was a very interesting read touching on such topics as how society oppresses women and overrule their choices, conformity, what is freedom and how free are we really?, mental health and how we treat our ill, and so on. I liked the decision to emphasise the point about the objectification and removed personhood of women even more strongly by never giving us “the vegetarian (who is actually vegan)*”‘s point of view. We only hear from her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister (married to the brother-in-law we hear from in the second act). The style is enjoyable to read and without unnecessary embellishments. There is also a strong theme of misunderstanding–or never having understood people close to you in the first place. This seems common in a lot of the Asian novels I have read in the past (actually, probably in all of them).
*Although everyone refers to the main character as a vegetarian, she’s actually a vegan
(at least before the shit really hits the fan and she decides to stop eating altogether to become more like an actual tree).
I think there are a lot of triggering things in this little book, so it probably warrants some warnings. Also, all the men in this book are garbage humans.
It was hard to give this a star rating, but I’d probably sit it comfortably at a 3.5 stars.
rating: ★★★☆☆ (3.5 stars)
genre: literary fiction, feminist(?)
date read: 11 June 2016
recommend for: feminists, readers of literary fiction, fans of asian literature
pros: engaging story and style, lots of interesting social commentary
cons: unsatisfying/ambiguous end (if you dislike that sort of thing; it didn’t bother me), frustrating male characters