The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Vegetarian
And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world. As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families - they would only have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.

Two things attracted me to The Vegetarian. 1. The strangely simplistic premise of it (how much can one write about turning vegetarian) and 2. Seeing it in Lauren Groff's favorites list. As soon as the book arrived, I pretty much dived into it.

Yeong-Hye wasn't a particularly remarkable woman, according to her husband. He thought she was too plain and that she had a "passive personality". He had never particularly cared about whom he would marry. He had wanted a woman who will take care of his daily needs but not stimulate him intellectually. It suited him just fine that "she didn't get worked up if I happened to be late" or that he didn't have to worry about his paunch or his skinny frame on her behalf.

So when Yeong-Hye announced that she was going to give up meat, he was shocked. For someone who never imposed herself on anyone, this was unexpected. But he was miffed as well, because he felt that she was selfish to try to change her habits without thinking of its impact on other people, specifically him. He couldn't survive a day without meat. Soon, he gets her father and her sister involved as well, hoping that one of them could try change her mind. But, Yeong-Hye was firm. Nothing was going to sway her.

If there's one word I have seen in every review of The Vegetarian so far, it is "weird". And that is very true. Told in three parts from the perspectives of Yeong-Hye's husband, brother-in-law, and sister, it shows how her decision to go vegetarian is not welcomed by her family. Her husband thinks her selfish, her father calls her disobedient, while her sister alternates between chiding her and wanting to let her be. But at the same time, other elements are at play too - her sister's life, while appearing content to those watching them is anything but. Her husband's art career isn't quite working out until he fixates on Yeong-Hye's Mongolian spot as inspiration for his next project. While he ponders how to get her to model for him, he also entertains sexual thoughts about her.

The first part of the book, narrated by Yeong-Hye's husband was my favorite. It was also the most down-to-earth and realistic part of the story. In addition to turning vegetarian, she also slowly begins to lose touch with sanity. Or does she? We only really see her through others' eyes - the eyes who condemn anything to do with vegetarianism. Is she really going crazy or is the society making her crazy?

But, once the book stepped into Part 2, the rhythm of the book changed. Yeong-Hye's brother-in-law has had a strange fascination for her ever since he heard about her still present Mongolian spot. He has already started visualizing his next project but it requires Yeong-Hye to model naked for him. The third part is from her sister's perspective and it spans over a single day while she handles the repercussions of her sister's decision to go vegetarian. I wasn't as enamored by the book during the last two parts. Yeong-Hye's condition was degrading further - she was beginning to feel that she was a tree, but I craved for at least one chapter from her perspective. The book felt slightly unbalanced in that respect. Besides, I found myself not caring so much about Yeong-Hye's brother-in-law. The first and the last parts seem linked but the middle part was a digression.

However, this is a very quick read and I am glad that I read it. The problems I had with it are quite minor. The translation is beautiful and I found it hard to put the book down after each session with it. It is very graphic however - there is an animal torture scene that can turn your stomach. It's short but it's vivid. To me, it was more a reminder about the myriad ways that animals are tortured in this world - something that can be easy to forget. But once past that, the book focused more on the characters and their sufferings.


I received this book from the publisher for free for review.

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