Author: Han Kang
Published: 2/12/2016 (originally in 2007)
Rating: 4 Stars
Literary Fiction |188 pages | Published by Hogarth
The most compelling aspect of Han Kang‘s The Vegetarian is that the answers you seek most will likely remain unknowable. In fact, the more you seek to find meaning in the surreal aspects of the story, the less you are likely to enjoy it. I arrived at this conclusion because upon closing the book, I spent several minutes pondering what it all meant and eventually realized that all the pondering, the wondering, and the confusion were meant to be part of the reading experience. Admittedly, not everyone will appreciate this kind of approach to reading a story, but I found it to be immensely satisfying.
The Vegetarian is a triptych composed of three separate stories that were originally published in Korean as linked novellas in 2007. The book English speakers will be reading is a collection of these three novellas that are all narrated by people with ties to our titular vegetarian, Yeong-hye.
I will briefly discuss each story and share my impressions.
The first story, “The Vegetarian” is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong. From the moment we meet him, he is rendered immediately unlikable, showing no respect for or real interest in the lives of women and especially in his wife. The only reason he married her was because it was convenient for both families and he judged Yeong-hye to be the type of woman who wouldn’t demand much of him. He was correct, as Yeong-hye is a meek, taciturn, and excessively ordinary woman.
But one day she wakes from a dream and renounces eating meat. As readers, we never fully understand this dream, but we do get glimpses into the surreal vision that irrevocably changed Yeong-hye’s life as well as that of her immediate family. Yeong-hye’s gradual transformation from a boring wife to an idiosyncratic vegetarian who then develops self-destructive tendencies is the highlight of the novel.
The second story, “Mongolian Mark” follow’s Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a lazy husband who is also trapped in a joyless marriage. His only interesting quality is that he may be a talented painter and video artist. We learn about his obsession with the image of two people, whose bodies are covered in beautiful and colorful flowers, “having sex against a background of unutterable silence.” He believes his idea to be a stroke of aesthetic genius and tries to recreate it in a project. I’m not so sure it’s such a brilliant idea. This story is more upsetting and disturbing than the first, for different reasons.
The last story, “Flaming Trees” is narrated by Yeong-hye’s older sister, In-hye. It takes place a couple of years after the first story. Fortunately, she is no longer married to the dead-beat artist. Unfortunately, Yeong-hye’s mental and physical health has deteriorated severely over the years and her sister is the only family who cares for her any more, as her parents have severed all connections with Yeong-hye. This last story takes us into the vegetarian’s complete and utter descent into madness. It’s not the strongest part of the novel, but it continues to challenge the reader emotionally and proves to be a solid end to this peculiar story.
I didn’t enjoy The Vegetarian in the traditional sense of finding delight and pleasure in reading the work. But I read it in rapt attention, experiencing a variety of unpleasant emotions –discomfort, disgust, shock, confusion, pity, and terror. This is definitely a novel for readers with strong mental fortitude, so if you were not turned off by what you have read so far, then you very well might enjoy this eerie little book.
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.
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