Book Review: The Vegetarian

Vaguely, at the back of my mind, I remember hearing about this book in 2016. It was about a year and change after I had turned vegetarian [lacto-ovo-vegetarian, more specifically], and I thought it would be an interesting read. However, this was not a factor in my decision to buy the book, or to read it.

I just liked the cover. A white bird’s wing, on a background of pink and black. The note in the corner saying it was a Man Booker prize winner did my impression no harm either. So I bought it.

And then I read it.

Author: Han Kang

Story: Yeong-hye is a young woman, who is afflicted by violent dreams one night. As a result, she becomes vegan from the next day onwards. Her decision rocks her marriage, and the book chronicles her descent into what appears to be mental illness through the perspectives of first her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister.

Writing: The original novella is in Korean, so I obviously read a translation. Having read translations of Indian works, and seeing the cultural tones denuded in the process of literal meanings, I am reluctant to form any opinion at all of this book. That being said, there is a stark simplicity to the writing, but often it feels detached and somewhat cold.

Characters: Practically all the characters have demons; whether they acknowledge them or not. There are very few likeable characters, including Yeong-hye herself, who inspires pity rather than empathy. Yeong-hye is such a fragile being, almost a shell of a person rather than an actual person, it is hard to understand anything of what she is going through.

As for the narrators, her husband is a shit-head. There is no other way to describe his utter lack of empathy and total self-absorption. Her brother-in-law is conflicted and troubled, tortured by his artistic obsessions. Ultimately, a weakling. Her sister, though. She is the only person in this book with any degree of character. She has depth and dignity, and yet she is so fundamentally human – which is strange in this collection of one-dimensional people. I would say that she is the true protagonist of this book. [Of course, this is because I can only empathise with her.]

Pace: Short and therefore quickly read. It was a riveting read, because I could barely comprehend what I was reading at all.

Conclusion: As I mentioned before, my experience of translated novels has been far from satisfactory. I don’t think any one can get the right sense of Korean culture via this book, as it is firstly a story with a narrow focus, and secondly it does paint the culture in an extremely poor light. That being said, coming from an Asian background, I can see that the elements of patriarchy are more than plausible. It is the lack of love within families and the extreme reactions to vegetarianism that strike me as off the mark.

When I finished this book, I was very confused as to what the takeaway was meant to be. It is a harsh story with horrific elements, but there was no conclusion or resolution. Each section rests in mid-air, and the reader is very much left to imagine the end results on their own. I am not against this type of storytelling, but then such an extreme case leaves me wondering what the point of writing the book was at all.

The book has left an indelible mark on my psyche, as evidenced by the fact that I finished it over a month ago and I can still remember the arcs. I initially spent some time looking for someone to talk to about the book, in the hope that it would make sense to me. However, the book is meant to remain as an abstruse puzzle, where I cannot fathom the point at all. I did visit a few Reddit threads about it, but the conversations usually devolved to comments about the translation.

This article, though, was an interesting take. I found some measure of relief after reading that someone else disliked this acclaimed book too.

Rating: ✩✩



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