The Vegetarian by Han Kang

I simply had to read The Vegetarian after coming across this glowing review, in which the author, amongst other high praise, declares it as “the best book I have ever read”.

The story is set in modern-day Seoul and follows the reactions of various family members as Yeong-hye, the central character, stops eating meat following vivid, blood-soaked dreams that leave her haunted. It’s split into three acts:

  • Act one is told from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s career-driven husband, who has always abided closely to societal mores, as is common to do in South Korea. He chose to marry Yeong-hye, who in his mind is “the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world”, as she seemed like the safest bet for his future. The fact that Yeong-hye becomes vegetarian, going onto raise eyebrows at a work gathering, leaves him irrate.
  • Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law narrates act two. The brother-in-law is a struggling artist who relies on his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, to provide for him and their young child. An obsession with Yeong-hye grows as he can’t escape a vision of two bodies painted in flowers, writhing together.
  • Act three belongs to In-hye, as she takes on the responsibility of caring for her sister while also dealing with a separation from her husband, running a business, and continuing to look after her young child.

The Vegetarian is a unique, wonderfully weird, and evocative read with multiple layers to unfold. I was left both envious and in awe of Han Kang, with the knowledge that I’d never be able to come up with such an extraordinary concept.

I was most struck by how Yeong-hye’s decision was met with such violent resistance, including abuse from her father, sexual assault from her husband, and even attempts to force-feed her. As the plot continues to unfold in unexpected ways, Yeong-hye’s remains steadfast and passively defiant, with her sister going onto realise just what this means:

She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

The Vegetarian is both bizarre and breathtakingly beautiful. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. With all of its unpredictable turns and layers, I’m sure everyone who reads it will take away something a bit different.

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