Book Reviews, Contemporary

The Vegetarian – Han Kong Review

the-vegetarian-han-kang

Rating: ★★★★

This book was recommended to me by a friend who absolutely loved it, and  I was intrigued by it because she had said she found it difficult to describe properly. To put it simply, this is a book about a woman who spontaneously decides to become a vegetarian,  and the effects of this decision. The novel actually touches upon issues such as women’s place in society, freedom, identity and mental health.

Yeong-hye and her husband have an ordinary and average life. They are ordinary and average people. That is why Yeong-hye’s decision to stop eating meat shocks her husband so much. In the first section of the novel, that is narrated by him, he tries and fails to understand his wife’s decision to change her eating habits, and how she can completely disregard his comfort, and her own appearance. He is angry that she would make such a decision without running it by him first, subject him to her dietary choices, and frankly, make any decision by herself. The subsequent two sections of the novel are also narrated by those close to Yeong-hye: her brother-in-law and her sister, as Yeong-hye is admitted into psychiatric care multiple times.

Although this is about Yeong-hye’s choice to stop eating meat, it is actually about much more than that. From the first section onwards, we see that what is really shocking to people is that she has made any decision for herself at all, that she stands by it, and that she defies tradition – her family are a family of meat-lovers, and even try to force feed her at a family dinner. Eventually, Yeong-hye’s lifestyle becomes even more radical, as her whole identity changes and she begins to become more and more like a plant, stripping to absorb sunlight and insisting that she doesn’t need food, only water. Although her decisions are seen by others as a sign of lunacy, by the end of the novel, in the section narrated by her sister, we wonder which character is most trapped.

I have read some modernist works before, and the style of writing in The Vegetarian is quite simple, so I didn’t find the novel too difficult to grasp. In fact, I read it in one day as it is quite short. I enjoyed the symbolism and the way it addressed themes such as women’s subjugation. I think that it approached this theme really well, as we see different aspects of control over women throughout the book, w whether it is her Yeong-hye’s husband’s expectation that his wife always think of his feelings first and put them before her own, her father’s violence, her brother-in-law’s obsession with her, or her sister’s doubt over how her sister is being treated.. We also barely see Yeong-hye speak herself, and her story is wholly told by those around her. However, I am grateful that this book wasn’t longer. By the end of the novel, I was starting to, not lose my way, but grow a bit tired of symbolism and allegory and wanted to return to my usual explicit action and plot. I was starting to read faster just to get ahead in the book, and so I think that I probably will have missed details in the final chapter, which I will probably return to so that I can really look at it properly.

Overall, I can see why this book made such waves when it first came out, and why it is receiving so much attention. It looks at various themes about women and society through the lenses of different characters, and really makes you think about how they play out in reality. Although I started to get bored towards the end, I put that down mainly to the fact that I wanted to finish the book by the end of the night. Whilst modernism isn’t for everyone and can be a bit difficult to get your head around or get back into if, like me, you studied modernist texts as a student, but this book at just under 200 pages isn’t too much to handle in my opinion, and unlike some older classics in modern fiction, its prose isn’t rambling or confusing at all, so it might be a good place to start.

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