The Vegetarian

Its red book cover bears a special insignia of recognition from Man Booker Prize. This must be good, I thought.

For a South Korean novelist to penetrate the international literary circle, this piece of work must be something.  But for a novel to reach international status: translated into English and published in the UK puts it in a whole new game level – all the more get awarded by Man Booker Prize, a leading literary award-giving body in the English speaking world. This must be really something. I am so ready for this. 

All the trigger warnings cannot prepare the reader for the traumas this may bring. You might eye the title and scan the first innocuous sentence — “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way” — and think that the biggest risk here might be converting to vegetarianism. But there are the horrors that rattle in and out of this ferocious, magnificently nightmarish novel that you can’t shake out of your system once you’ve finished its 188 pages.

I was sooooo not ready for it. So take this review as a cautious heads up for the ride that it will be with Yeong-Hye.  

Written by Han Kang, a celebrated South Korean female writer, The Vegetarian started as a three-part novella originally entitled Ch’aesikjuuija which was based on Kang’s 1997 short story entitled “The Fruit of My Woman”.  In 2009, it hit a certain viral status and was produced into a Korean film. Copies were made available to its anglophone readers as it was translated by Deborah Smith, the only published UK-based translator of contemporary Korean fiction.

It is a gripping novel that tells the story of Yeong-Hye, a dutiful Korean wife who, spurred on by a dream, suddenly stopped eating meat and decides to become a hardcore vegetarian. This instinctive purging allowed her to empty her fridge of any animal products. This subversive, willful decision not only affects all aspects of her familial life but also fractures and ultimately ends all of her intimate relationships. All these make Yeong-Hye’s recluse more terrifying as her rebellion manifests in increasingly bizarre and frightening forms.

The Vegetarian is a briskly-paced novel that takes you into Yeong-Hye’s seemingly pensive life as it progresses into a nightmarish, delusionary day-to-day existence. Smith’s translation is so provocative and haunting that it will make you feel like the 188 pages of the book seem to be 50 pulsating pages only.

What will definitely strike the reader is the flagrant and almost sensory narration of flesh and meat being cut. Yeong- Hye’s vivid exposition seeps into imagination. I swear I can smell raw meat and blood as I go through her lines and I can feel myself getting disgusted, line after line. Kang’s language showcases all sorts of imagery. It offers strange multi-sensory appeal, startling colours and disturbing questions.

“Blood, flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.” (page 56, The Vegetarian, Hogarth Books)

“Animal eyes gleaming wild, presence of blood, unearthed skull, again those eyes. Rising up from the pit of my stomach.” (pages 40-41, The Vegetarian, Hogarth Books)

Bile. I can taste my own bile after reading those lines. You see, what’s really good about this book is that there’s a tender exploration of the protagonist’s desire to break free. She is neither a victim nor an abuser of self. She is simply a woman whose frailty demands a certain liberation.

In a world where women’s bodies are constantly being studied, scrutinized, mocked, and abused, Yeong-Hye’s desire to let go of herself instantly reminds us of many other women characters who mindfully or mindlessly battled it out but lost everything in the end. There’s a certain penetrating sadness to know a normal and capable character suddenly plunge into her own demise. Yeong-Hye’s stubborness and unrelenting rebellion are just symptoms of the gradual decay of her spirit.

On the other hand, Yeong-Hye’s visceral fear of submission totally contrasts her sister’s complete yielding acceptance. In-Hye’s contemplative surrender to the dire circumstances that involve her sister and herself allows the story to come full circle.

The three-part novel is told in three perspectives. The last two being crucial subplots to the first part entitled, The Vegetarian. The second part is entitled Mongolian Mark. This part uses her brother-in-law’s perspective as he uncovers a debilitating state-of-mind and acts upon certain desires that will further complicate the relationships presented in the book. Flaming Trees, the third and concluding part of the story, centers on In-Hye’s POV.

The Vegetarian is guaranteed to be a bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to your reading list. It is sensual, ripe with potent images. You have been warned.

Title: The Vegetarian

Author: Han Kang

Translated by: Deborah Smith

Publisher: Hogarth

Paperback 188 pages ISBN 978-0-8041-8974-3

Fiction: vegetarianism, anorexia nervosa, mental health, eating disorder



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