Title : The Vegetarian
Author : Han Kang
Man Booker International Prize (2016)
Genre : Cultural, Adult, Literary Fiction
Goodreads summary :
Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
[I’m not going to review this book in my normal format of pros and cons, I’ll instead be writing about my general thoughts.]
The Vegetarian is probably one of the most upsetting books I’ve read in a long time, at least, upsetting enough to disturb me and at the same time, awe and intrigue me to such an extent. To be completely honest, I don’t think I’d be able to pinpoint the exact thing the book is about, and maybe the uncertainity is the real magic of the book. How it blends in different aspects and different themes and it all still leaves you astounded as to what is the real meaning of the book.
If someone asked me to describe the book, off the bat, I’d say that at it’s heart it’s about how culture and traditions often stifle us, and how it’s a painful yet liberating journey of a women slowly driven into madness, and yet eventually finding out her true self.
The book is narrated in three parts (originally published as three novellas) and each part is written from the point of view of a different character, closely related to the main character (Yeong-hye)’s life and essentially, talks about her transformation and life.
The first part is narrated from Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong’s POV and starts off with an introduction to their married life, and immediately spirals off onto the day Yeong-hye decided to stop eating meat. This is the result of some bloody nightmare she had, and what follows this revelation is the aftermath of her choice, and how her family reacts to such a decision. This part centers around themes of violence and dominance, and also brings out how culture can often be so important that it curbs a person’s freedom and indivduality.
The second part is written from Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s POV, possibly the most disturbing and wrecking character of the book. This part brims with sensuality, the brother-in-law’s sudden attraction towards Yeong-hye and adds another layer to Yeong-hye’s character, and is like a bridge between her initial resistance in the first part, to the state she ends up in in the last. The unnamed brother-in-law is a maniac to read about, and the hand he has in further destroying Yeong-hye’s mind is thrilling and (in a way) creepy to fathom.
The final part shows the condition she ends up in, and how her mental state has further degressed into something completely else. This part in narrated by her sister, In-hye, the only family member who stands by Yeong-hye’s side whereas the rest of the family has long given up hope. It’s a chilling end to this family drama, and packs a punch with it’s deep questioning of death and the character’s obsession with changing the form of her existence.
Han Kang’s writing is pragmatic, and doesn’t try to be pretentious or dramatic. It is what is it, and yet so strong that it pulls you in. No matter what anyone says about the writing, one has to agree that it is compelling. You simply don’t wish to put it down, and it just draws you in and makes you absorb the words and the sentences. It’s a haunting, raw kind of writing, and it really stood out for me.
As for the characters, categorizing them into good or bad is madness, because they aren’t the kind of black-or-white charcaters you can simply like or dislike. Honestly, if you ask me, there isn’t a single character I liked in the book, nor did I dislike any character deeply. Each character, insead, had good and bad both, and that brought out the humanity and the realness in the characters. Every character portrayed a particular aspect or way of looking at things, and the three narratives were splendidly done.
To wrap up, I’d say, go into the book with an open mind, and with the willingness to be asked questions you’d be tempted to ponder over. I would advise against looking for a lot of meaning into the book as a whole, and instead take it in as a story of a woman whose one decision leads to devastating consequences in her family. This book may not be for everyone, but it’s a thrilling and shocking tale, and will move you and definitely make you have some strong opinions on it (be it positive or negative).