The Vegetarian – Han Kang

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I noticed that this book had won The Man Booker International Prize and I immediately wanted to read it. Also the title had me gripped as I am a vegetarian and although this book isn’t necessarily centred around vegetarianism I was intrigued to see how it fitted in.

This book is quite short yet it is packed with detail from cover to cover, I found it hard to put down and conveniently it is structured into three parts. I found myself reading this book per section over three nights which I found made the book digestible and nostalgic in a sense. I kept thinking back to the book and certain parts of the plot that stuck in my mind, it is overall a very thought-provoking read.

Following the lives of Yeong-hye and her family, it looks at her life centred a particular decision and how this affects the others around her. Yeong-hye decides to embrace a vegetarian lifestyle, and from this there is an exploration of her physical and mental health. Growing up in Korea, her family aren’t entirely supportive of this decision as it is almost unheard of or the people they hear of becoming vegetarian are usually of a particular class or style.

One thing I noticed after starting the book and being introduced the Yeong-hye was that her vegetarian lifestyle was more of a vegan diet as she seemed to stick strictly to a plant-based diet and didn’t eat eggs or milk. Yet her acceptance of the diet and reasons behind her decision are incredibly interesting and not necessarily the commonly heard reasons for most vegetarians and vegans. This is a very minor point in the book and one I was hesitant to include in my review however it was something that bothered me, it’s important to distinguish between vegetarians and vegans and maybe this is just something that is important to me compared to other readers.

I particularly enjoyed reading about the different cultures and customs in Korea and as the reader travels through the three sections of the book they will notice each part is written from the view of a different character. This gives the plot more of a visual standpoint as you can see a particular incident that links these three characters and how they felt at the time, how they dealt with it and the mental scar that it left behind. One aspect that was universal to the novel was that the plot centred on Yeong-hye yet none of the sections were from her point of view which left me questioning at the end if I fully understood her reasoning for becoming vegetarian or if she had a more serious underlying issue. She is a very interesting character and I think it would have been intriguing to see inside her head and what she was thinking. However, on saying this Han Kang makes a very special point in laying out the novel this way because it illustrates clearly how people are seen through the eyes of others and notably Yeong-hye in this period in her life. I feel this aspect of the plot gave the book a deeper meaning, a more intense and underlying message for the readers.

This book is thoroughly enjoyable but it is read almost through clouded vision. Yes on one-level it is an intriguing book however it addresses some dark and scarring themes and issues. I can’t pinpoint a handful of areas in the book that have a happy scene yet this plot seemed to incorporate some realistic feelings and truths. Han Kang did not dress this book up to be a fictional and fun read but more an exploration of the everyday life with a twist of serious issues. Although it is never clear, I do believe this book accelerates on the guise of mental illness. To me nearly every character possessed their own traits and unique ways of thinking that were distorted in one shape or another. Throughout the novel they continued to feed my questioning of Yeong-hye’s state. She seemed victimised from the beginning for choosing a vegetarian lifestyle and throughout because she didn’t fit into the conventional standards of life she continued to be degraded and demoralised. I seriously question after reading the book if she is the one in the wrong after all.

I also want to talk about the writing style in this novel, the book was originally written in Korean and translated into English yet the translation is very good and the plot very easy to follow. One thing I did find interesting however was the use of words and the openness with particular scenes such as nudity and sexual violence. These scenes weren’t described in a hazy way and were written very bluntly which I feel possibly highlights the translation aspect or the difference in writing cultures from across the world. I read very few foreign literature books however I have been very keen to do so and this book really sparks that desire to read more worldwide.

I gave this book a 4 out of 5 on goodreads and would definitely recommend it to all readers, it is short but packs a punch within its pages.

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