I never knew this book existed until one of my friends suggested it to me a few months ago. Thinking that the plot of the story was someone’s journey towards veganism, I’ll be honest, it did not intrigue me. I thought it was going to be a book about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle or something of that sort. But boy was I so wrong. I have never read a book which is so disturbing yet so beautiful at the same time that I struggle to find the right words to describe my overall feeling for this book.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang translated by Deborah Smith is a story that begins when Yeong-hye suffers from a graphic and gory nightmare. To purge herself from the disturbing images in her mind, Yeong-hye renounces eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more plant-like existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiralling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavour will take Yeong-hye far from her once-known self altogether.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize Award in 2016. Knowing this, I thought it was going to be a pretty average book based on the other two Booker Prize award winners I read this year. Instead, this novel took my expectations, literally threw them out the window and gave me something I could never predict which is one of the things I love about it. It’s such a bizarre little book that I can’t stop thinking about.
The story is divided into three parts and is centred on a woman named Yeong-hye. However, the narrative is never told from Yeong-hye’s perspective. Instead, it is told from her husband’s point of view in the first part, her brother -in- law’s point of view in the second and her sister’s point of view in the third part. We are never given a glimpse into her mind and are left to speculate on things which add to the mystery. It can be frustrating sometimes because we never get direct answers to any of the questions. I was very surprised by the prose because it was beautiful. I didn’t think that a book could be translated into a different language without some discrepancy in the story. The men in this book are despicable human beings but so realistically portrayed that it makes you wonder how many men like them are out there in the world. It’s not a pleasant thing to think about but, unfortunately, our society is not all rainbows and sunshine, and such topics have to be dealt with. The pacing of the book is not consistent throughout, sometimes it’s fast and sometimes it drags out. Lucky for me, it didn’t bother me as much. It is pretty graphic and it does contain quite a few unpleasant paragraphs to read which revolve around the topics of marital rape, animal abuse, physical abuse and a few other things as well which might put off a few readers. I, however, liked its straightforward approach towards unpleasant but important and necessary topics. This book focuses on mental illnesses and the impact it has on the individual and their family. And it leaves you questioning a lot of things. I enjoyed reading this book because it is one of the most thought-provoking books that I have ever read.
I can’t say that I loved the book because I have very conflicting feelings about it but I did enjoy reading it and it does not make me feel like I’ve wasted my time. My rating for this one is 4 out of 5.
Out of curiosity, I did a little research about the book and found out that there is a controversy surrounding the translation. According to an article written in The Guardian, Korean University students claim that 10.9% of the first part of the novel was mistranslated and another 5.7% of the original text was omitted and that there is a stylistic difference between the two versions. Since I have no knowledge of the Korean language, I cannot give my opinion on this. So for those of you who know the language and have read both the original and translated versions of the book, I would love to know your thoughts.
Unlike most good books, I will not recommend this one because I don’t think that it is meant for everyone. In case you decide to give the book a read, I will give a trigger warning for those who suffer from eating disorders as it deals heavily with anorexic conditions.