Saturday, 21 May 2016

Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang
Translated by: Deborah Smith
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 183
Genres: Literary Fiction

The Vegetarian
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.
This is the haunting story of Yeong-hye, a woman from South Korea and her choice to essentially become vegan. Her decision is quite unusual for her culture and it leaves her husband and family baffled; the novel is split into three parts each from the point of view from a member of her family starting with her horrible husband, her sister's husband and finally, her sister.

The Vegetarian raised a lot of questions for me such as the nature of insanity, beauty and innocence. Yeong-hye was a very sympathetic character, I felt pity for her and her situation. I see Yeong-hye's decision as a rebellion against her unhappy existence and violence. Yeong-hye significantly does not have a narrative voice whilst her husband, father and her brother in law objectify her and try to force her into the roles of dutiful wife, daughter and lover before finally discarding her. I found it all so appalling.

The writing is very easy to read, very descriptive and just utterly beautiful. There is a lot of horror in this story but the overall tone of the book is tranquil. It's quite a bizarre contrast. Birds and flight are recurring symbols in the book and I interpreted them as a metaphor for Yeong-hye's struggle to be free in her own way. A brilliant short little book and the story will stick with me for a long time.


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