Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

*Spoiler alert* – describes elements of the plot of the novel.

Despite the title, this is a novel, not a cookbook, and it is not so much about a vegetarian as about a woman with severe anorexia and mental illness. The book won the Man Booker International prize 2016. The author, Han Kang is from Gwangju, South Korea. The translation from Korean is by Deborah Smith.

To me, the book is somewhat cold and dispassionate. I never really felt involved with any of the characters. The story is told in three parts. The first part tells of Yeong-hye’s loveless marriage to an autocratic, chauvinist husband, Mr. Cheong, and her decision to become vegetarian. The decision sets off a series of destructive events involving her husband, her parents, her sister and her brother-in-law. It would seem that vegetarianism has a long way to go towards being accepted in Korea. The second part takes us into the sister’s marriage, and the brother in law’s artistic obsession. This section climaxes in the full breakdown of relationships. The third section looks at Yeong-hye’s mental illness and descent into physical and mental breakdown.

Some of the coldness of the book may come from it being translated from Korean. I’m not doubting the translator’s skill, but it may be that there are more subtleties and more colour in the original. Or maybe not. The book describes a still highly paternalistic society. Yeong-hye’s anorexia is clearly a reaction to her upbringing, her oppressive marriage and the rigidity of Korean society.

This is not an enjoyable book and I am not sure I would have picked it as a major prize winner. The writing is, to me, a bit heavy-handed, and the plot, at times, stretches credulity. It does however provide interesting insights into a paternalistic society and the mind of an anorexic.

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