On reading: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Title: The Vegetarian

Author: Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

From the back: Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. 

Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another. 

The gist: I am late. 

Late to the party in a major way. 

Party might be the wrong word. 

Interestingly, in relation to my post when I talked about DNF books and about needing to read books at the right time, I had actually started The Vegetarian a while ago. It wasn’t working for me at the time so I stepped back. 

Step forward again, open up The Vegetarian, and genuinely this is one of the most atmospheric, disturbing books I think I’ve ever read. It treads the fine boards between whether something is real and whether it’s not, and regardless of what side of the boards you land on, the results are traumatic in both a personal and physical way. 

Kang pulls no punches, and won’t swerve away from some intense topics. What starts as something that might seem a bit comical (caveat: through this British girl’s lens) with the concept of vegetarianism seeming to be so strange, the novel escalates and becomes something incredibly sinister, and at times brutal. This book descends into something so darkly tragic, it lingers in your brain. 

The reason I mention the British lens is because this is a South Korean book, and it would not be fair for me to say that I understand the attitudes towards vegetarianism in South Korean culture. What I do know, is that in British culture I know people who do ridicule vegetarianism in a similar way to the beginnings of this book (although not to the extreme measures that we see in the first part of The Vegetarian). I know people who find the concept of vegetarianism so strange that they can’t comprehend what a vegetarian could actually eat. I don’t know if vegetarianism is seen as something culturally bizarre in South Korea. But I do know that the way that Kang shows a spiral formed of abuse, power, mental health issues and eating disorders is truly devastating. 

The Vegetarian is, in a lot of ways, a quiet book. There’s not a lot in the way of explosive action, or dramatic show-downs. But the way in which Kang gradually ramps up a sense of unease, a sense of “maybe this could be stopped now, but nobody stepped in”, a sense of creeping dread, is so effective it is truly nightmare fuel. 

This book is one of the most quietly disturbing books I’ve read—the sort of book that leaves ghosts imprinted on you, simmering under the surface, rearing their heads at unsuspecting moments. There’s power in Kang’s words, and sadness at their heart. 

Read it. 

Favourite line: “perhaps the one she’d so earnestly wanted to help, was not him but herself.”

Read if: You want an original, disturbing read exploring power, abuse and a devastating spiral through the mind.

Read with: Anything to eat that didn’t previously breathe.

Get it: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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