Books

Book review: The Vegetarian

I’m nearing the end of my current book challenge with this read and I’m afraid I won’t have all the reviews up before the end of January because I like order and book reviews go up on my blog on Sundays. Then, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day both happened on Sundays and I was never going to wish everyone a merry Christmas on boxing day just because I wanted to post a book review, was I? I mean sure, I could post two blogs in one day if I wanted total anarchy… maybe I should adjust my 2017 goals to include chilling out?

Anyway, since I want to complete the challenge on schedule, I’m going to bend my rules a little and share my reviews early on Goodreads – they won’t be as bloggy as the posts here, but at least they’ll be online before February. The Vegetarian was the book I chose for the category of 2016 book award finalist having seen it everywhere, including on Amazon who were selling an affordable Kindle copy.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang

If I’m honest, I didn’t know what to expect with this. I’ve never, to my knowledge, read any Korean fiction before and I think the only Korean film I’ve ever seen was Oldboy and while Oldboy is a great, if disturbing, movie, it would be a major coincidence if it contained any parallels to The Vegetarian. Well, The Vegetarian is quite a disturbing novel, but the parallels end there.

The story is told in three parts. First of all we have the main character, Yeong-Hye placidly, if not especially happily or unhappily, married. It’s told from her husband’s point of view and he describes her, and indeed himself, as being perfectly ordinary. Normal. Mediocre, even. Until one day she wakes up, empties the home of all meat and declares that she is now a vegetarian because she had a dream. He freaks out. Vegetarianism is seen as being extremely unnatural in Korea and his wife will not listen to reason or even engage in discussion about it. She stops sleeping with him because he smells of meat and begins losing worrying amounts of weight. When her family’s attempts to make her see sense turn to violence, her husband gives up on her, leaving her first with medical professionals and then with her sister – ignoring the latter’s pleas to drop the divorce proceedings.

Frankly, it all goes downhill from there. The fabric of the family is gently and quite unintentionally teased apart. All expectations are defied, usually with perfect calm, and Yeong-Hye’s behaviour gets stranger and stranger and occasionally inspires self-destructive tendencies in others. Her sister’s husband for example, an artist lacking inspiration, becomes obsessed with Yeong-Hye and the need to paint her body with flowers, something quite unlike any art he’s produced in the past and which leads the reader to wonder if it might have been better for him and Yeong-Hye to never have met, especially considering the final act, in which Yeong-Hye becomes increasingly convinced that she should become a tree.

The novel is violent and full of horrors. It attacks social expectations and documents what happens when those expectations can’t be met. It fails to help those who need it because their needs are too strange and impossible to fulfil. It never quite fully explains how or why it all went wrong and the reader is left to decide for themselves. Still, as hard as some passages are to stomach, it’s an intensely compelling book and one I can’t stop thinking about.

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