Updated on February 24, 2017
50. ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang
I have never read any South Korean literature before, but from the blurb of The Vegetarian by Han Kang I was hoping for a creepy, detached, surreal story in the same vein as my favourite Japanese writers, Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa. Kang’s novel is a little different from what I was expecting, but I was not disappointed at all.
First, let’s just take a minute to appreciate that amazing cover. It looks like an image of pretty pink flowers, until you notice the chunk of steak, the tongue, the fingertips and the eyeball. I think the cover does an excellent job of setting up the major themes of the story: the contrast between flesh and flowers, and the desire to merge the two together.
The story is about Yeong-hye, a seemingly ‘normal’ woman living in South Korea who starts having terrifying dreams about faces which inspire her to become a vegetarian. The people around her aren’t happy with this choice – vegetarianism seems to be a major problem for her food-loving family – and they do everything they can to change her mind, but she will not be moved. In fact, as time passes Yeong-hye begins to fixate upon the idea of becoming a plant herself.
For most of the book we don’t get to see inside Yeong-hye’s head first-hand: the first section is told from the point of view of her husband, who views her as dull and unattractive but a fairly essential tool for his ordered life; her brother-in-law, a video artist who becomes obsessed with her body and pursues her for art and sex; and her sister, who visits Yeong-hye in a mental institution and begins to wonder whether there might not be something sane in her sister’s madness.
Occasionally we do get into Yeong-hye’s head, in italicised sections which describe her dreams. What’s fascinating is that the link between her nightmares and her vegetarianism is never really explained: on the one hand it seems illogical, and so it is obvious that she is descending into madness, but on the other hand we see her unfair (sometimes violent and exploitative) treatment at the hands of her loved ones and the line between what is sane and what is not becomes blurred.
I found the ending slightly confusing. I don’t mind open-ended, obscure endings, but there were one or two odd sentences which hinted at something bigger that I felt had gone over my head entirely. This novel didn’t quite have the dreamy surrealism I thought it might (it seemed like it would be similar to Murakami and Ogawa) – it was a little more realistic, a little less ethereal in tone – but the language had that beautiful simplicity I love, and some of the images Kang creates are just gorgeous.
The Vegetarian is an impressive, disturbing novel, twisted (just the way I like it) and really beautifully written. Not a bad book to round off the year!
“Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.