I recently read The Vegetarian by Han Kang and it was so amazing that I just really need to talk about it.
This book is weird and I think everyone should read it. The Vegetarian was on my TBR list since I heard about it in late 2016. I had no idea that it was published in South Korea in 2007. In fact, the three sections of the book were published as three individual short stories in a magazine between 2004-05. I know, right?! It was translated and released in the United Kingdom in 2015, and then in North America just last year.
My expectations for this book were honestly pretty slim: a woman decides to become a vegetarian and her family doesn’t like it. Well, yes, that is true, but this short book packs so much more action and detail.
Yeong-hye, the main character, decides to adapt a vegetarian lifestyle after she starts having horrific, graphic nightmares about slaughterhouses. The descriptions of her dreams in the novel are incredibly detailed, and pretty uncomfortable. It’s not really surprising that she decides to give up eating meat. However, vegetarianism is presented as a taboo lifestyle in South Korea, and her husband, parents, and siblings cannot understand why she would suddenly change her diet so drastically.
Vegetarianism isn’t really the main focus of this book, though. The story is divided into three parts–“The Vegetarian,” “Mongolian Mark,” and “Flaming Trees”–all of which are told from different character’s perspectives: Mr. Cheong (Yeong-hye’s husband), Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, and In-hye (Yeong-hye’s older sister), respectively. Each section explores how Yeong-hye’s decision to adopt a vegetarian diet affect their lifestyles, relationships, and overall sanity.
More specific themes that are explored include desire, sexuality, independence, mental health, and empathy. I know, it’s a lot, but I think that’s what makes it so good. There are so many moving parts to this story, and the interconnection of it all makes it so much more realistic.
What really stood out about The Vegetarian for me, though, was the fact that while Yeong-hye is the main character, you very rarely see anything from her point of view. That being said, I found myself relating to her more than any of the other characters. No, I am not a vegetarian, I’ve never been admitted to a psychiatric ward, had an affair, or truly believed that I was a tree, but her sense of independence is beautiful. No one wants her to be a vegetarian, but she does it anyway. She loses her husband, her family, and her sanity, but she never gives up on herself.
There are a lot of very graphic, and very violent, scenes in this book, so it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. That being said, if you’re looking for something unlike anything you’ve read before, try to get your hands on a copy of The Vegetarian.