TRL REVIEWS: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

TITLE: The Vegetarian

AUTHOR: Han Kang

PUBLISHED: 2007 (Korea); 2016 (English translation)

PUBLISHER: Hogarth

Quote: “The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her successes had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn't understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.” 

Overview: Yeong-hye, a South Korean housewife who is described by her husband as “completely unremarkable in any way,” has a dream one night. And another dream. A series of violent dreams depicting the slaughtering of animals. Her husband, Mr. Cheong, finds her throwing away all of the meat products in their home one day. Thus begins Yeong-hye’s obsession and descent into what is, at first, outwardly vegetarianism, but soon it becomes clear that it is inwardly something cruel and unusual.

Yeong-hye’s story is told in three parts. The first section is narrated by Mr. Cheong in first person and is where the story begins, as the completely unremarkable woman he married begins to disrupt his so carefully-created conventional life. The second section follows Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, the husband of her sister, In-hye, and is told in the third person. Yeong-hye dives deeper into her subversive state as we witness her brother-in-law, who is a graphic artist, merge his artistic vision with his erotic obsession, which due to a simple birthmark, becomes Yeong-hye. The final section follows In-hye and her relationship with her family, especially Yeong-hye,and is also written in the third person.

Analysis: I'm always a sucker for a multiple viewpoint novel, so off the bat I was intrigued. There was a darkness that surrounded the book as I read it, though it differed from any tales of horror or murder. There was almost a Kafkaesque mood that enveloped Han Kang's story. This dark, dreary, inescapable pain that can only get worse. A train speeding into the station at high speed with blown out brakes. It's the kind of book that leaves you with a pit in your stomach, a fear not of ghosts or monsters or even serial killers, but of something that could happy to any one of us. 

I found the collateral damage of Yeong-hye's decision to be telling, though I'm not sure of what. I was left with a lot of questions. Was this book about mental illness? A misunderstood dreamer? The dark underbelly of family? The mistreatment of a woman and gender roles? Giving in to all of your thoughts and dreams, rational or not, regardless of societal norms and the effect on others? A little bit of it all and more? But I enjoyed the story and the writing, how it was told through three different points of view as it progressed. And a good book is supposed to leave you with questions like those above, and I would recommend it to anyone searching for an engaging, quick read that has a solid dose of real world horror.

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Conclusion: The Vegetarian is worth a read and the horrors it presents are timely.

Rating: 3.5/5