Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Genre: Fiction (literary)
Release Date: 2nd February, 2016
“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.” (Goodreads)
My immediate reaction on finishing this book was, “wow I loved that – it’s just as good as I was expecting”. And it really was. But after letting it sit for a few days, I have no idea why I enjoyed it so much and I’m not too sure what I think about it.
There is so much to explore in this book that I don’t even know where to start. Or finish. Obviously it looks at vegetarianism in a meat-loving world, but it also explores mental illness, abuse (physical and mental), agency (or a lack of), and feminism. I’m not sure whether Han Kang intended for some parts to be weird, or whether it just seemed weird because the weird stuff was generally Yeong-hye’s dreams – and dreams are rarely normal.
One thing that seems clearer than everything else, is that although the story is about Yeong-hye, it’s never told from her perspective. In this way, Han Kang really reinforces the fact that Yeong-hye has no control over her own life. She is so not in control, that she doesn’t even have the right to tell her own story; all we see from her perspective are her dreams. When she does make a decision of her own volition, those around her attempt to reassert their control by literally shoving it down her throat. Yeong-hye is all but a non-entity in her own life.
I’m sticking with my initial 4-star rating of the book despite my inability to decipher what I liked about it. I did find myself completely immersed in it and could have easily read it in one sitting if I’d had the time – the writing was just beautiful, so an enthusiastic two thumbs to the author and translator in that regard. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of Han Kang as her books no doubt become more readily available in English.
It’s easy (or is it?) to see why this has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize – it explores loads of things and asks a bunch of questions without ever really answering them. I don’t know that it’s meant to be one of those books that the reader is meant to immediately “get”. It offers plenty of food for thought, but it’s a book that probably requires multiple readings to fully grasp the intention of it (at least, that’s what I’ll need).
Many thanks to Crown Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a review copy.