Short review: I gave this book 3.5 out of 5. It was a quick read with fantastic imagery.
The Vegetarian is a book that requires a bit of thought after reading it. You physically put the book (or in my case, my Kindle app) away, but your mind still tries to make sense of what you just read. It was something very different from what I’d been reading recently. This review said it best:
…it’s a bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet.
A book in three acts, The Vegetarian’s first chapter begins with Yeong-Hye’s decision not to eat meat. The decision, resulting from a series of graphic dreams, has a surprising affect on her family. Her husband, for example, is livid that she has interrupted an otherwise average lifestyle when she says she will no longer cook meat or allow it in their house. Similarly, her father is irate that she refuses to eat meat at his behest. As they continue to provide unsolicited direction, she becomes less and less responsive to her family’s interventions, which climaxes in abuse and self harm (I think at this point, its appropriate to provide a warning for spousal rape). She is unfazed as she loses everything. This is just the beginning of Yeong-Hye’s decent into madness.
The second act is extremely sexual, as Yeung-Hye’s brother-in-law becomes increasingly obsessed with her, and enlists her help in his art project. J’s infatuation is more than artistic, even if he doesn’t admit it to himself at first. Kang writes the obsession as though she’s experienced it herself, detailing his explicit fantasies, and his rare regrets. Finally, the last section, Flaming Trees, brings the book to a close. It shows the fallout from J’s obsession, and the status of Yeung-Hye’s mental decline. I’ll leave it there, to reduce the number of spoilers.
I shy away from saying this is an accurate depiction of South Korean family life, because I honestly don’t know whether or not it is. Moreover, I don’t fully understand whether there is a South Korean stigma surrounding vegetarianism. What you do walk away with is an understanding of how the family felt about her autonomy, symbolized by her extreme vegetarianism (which might actually be full-fledged veganism). This understanding, that women have little control over their bodies, comes from her husband, who steals sexual pleasure from her, and her father, who force-feeds her meat at a family function. Kang solidifies this by ensuring that a book almost entirely about Yeong-Hye is never actually told by Yeong-Hye. In fact, 2/3rds of the book are told by men who have little regard for her outside of her sexuality.
Do I recommend it? Yes, especially for enthusiasts of contemporary Asian literature. Even if this book wasn’t one of my favorites, I appreciate the way Han Kang’s mind works. This is only her first book to appear in English, but writing is in her blood, so I know there will be more. I look forward to reading them when they come.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.