Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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 vegetarian by Han KangThe 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.

P.S. – I know that the “Like” button is broken but I don’t know how to fix it! So for those who are too shy to comment and show their support by “liking” a post — I’m sorry. I’m working on it.

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32 thoughts on “Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

  1. Intrigued! I bought this book when I was in St. Louis a couple of weekends ago per the recommendation of the guy working at the bookstore, and I’m saving it for Dewey’s readathon next weekend. Can’t wait!

  2. Eeep, technical problems are so annoying. I hope your like button is fixed asap! 🙂 I’m putting this book on my TBR list, but I’m going to wait a while to read it. I don’t think I have the mental fortitude right now.

  3. Fascinating! I like how you were able to give two different opinion for the same book while explaining how you were able to perceive the book differently. It’s quite rare for people to explain this and to simply share their FIRST impression upon finishing a book. This sounds like something that challenges readers to go beyond enjoying a good book. It also sounds like an interesting book with the format it takes upon (is it just me or do I always end up reading a review of yours where the book is constructed in some original manner? :D)

    Awesome review! Sucks that you have that technical issue by the way. You can count this comment as two big thumbs up! 😛

    – Lashaan

  4. LIKE. 🙂 Great review.

    So I’ll probably end up reading this one before next year’s Tournament of Books, just because I’m almost certain it will be on the short list, and I like to try to read some of those kinds of books before the TOB begins. But I can’t say that I’m really dying to read it, if that makes sense.

    1. What is this Tournament of Books? It sounds awesome! And yes, it very likely will be on many lists in the coming year. There’s so much buzz around the book. It has already made the Man Booker International shortlist.

      1. The Morning News puts on the Tournament of Books every Spring, kinda like the March Madness basketball tournament. It’s great fun to watch! Look it up. There’s a Goodreads TOB group too.

  5. Oh how annoying, maybe the problem will fix itself? These little issues take up so much time.
    Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book! I know most people really saw something in this book and I found it good but just not great. Maybe I’ve read too many 4 and 5 star books recently. Usually I like complex and surreal books but this one bascially had two plot lines I would’ve liked to see connected or brought to a different conclusion: the relationship of the main character to her husband and family and 2) the vegetarianism/tranformation aspect. I got hooked in the first story but aspect 1 was dropped too much in my opinion and then the second aspect could’ve been amazing body horror/mental illness if it had more space to develop. But I’m glad too see work like this translated and getting attention. Hopefully this’ll give a boost to translated fiction!

    1. I was hoping it would fix itself, but it’s been 2 days now. Not sure if it’s a cache pluging problem or a problem with my theme, but I just went to the problems asking for help, so hopefully something changes. The strange thing is that the button appears on the WordPress reader and in the mobile version of my blog, but no on computers. hah!

      The first story was definitely the best part of the whole book and I wish I it could have been expanded into a full novel. The explanation for the end of her relationship with her husband and family wasn’t very satisfying, I must admit. And the jumping from story to story with years in between left many gaps that needed to be filled for complete appreciation. Reviewing is a very subjective matter, but I thought of this book as a lower-range 4 Star book, if that means anything! lol I’m starting to think that perhaps I should ditch the whole numbered rating thing, but then I remember that some people like a quick way to know your feelings on a book because a lot of them just skim through a review and don’t spend the time reading your entire 500-word post. 😛

  6. I’m hoping to read this sometime – I love weird and disturbing stories. 🙂
    Really great review! It’s the first one I’ve read that breaks the book up into its three parts.

  7. I started reading it today. Extremely creepy is all I can say so far. (Finished first section) although I have not reviewed it yet, do try Everything I never told you by Celeste Ng and The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones ( main character an African woman and gypsies in Spain)

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