The Vegetarian – Han Kang

I think I first read about this book on Simon’s blog back in December. I could not buy it for a while because of my book-buying-ban, so I only got it at the beginning of May, shortly before Man Booker Prize 2016 was announced. However, I didn’t read the book until after the announcement.

Let me start from the physical aspect, I love the cover (I have the one with a wing), it is beautiful, but once I opened the paperback I was really disappointed with the quality of the paper and very small (though well spaced) print. Purely because of this, I think, I delayed reading this book for a while. Why are paperback always on so bad paper? It is possible to have paperbacks published and still achieve a beautiful book on decent paper, avoiding the weight and massive size of hardbacks, but keeping the quality experience. I don’t know the history of British publishing industry enough to understand why the paperbacks almost always mean bad quality paper. If you know the reason please share in the comments! I’m dying to understand it.

Finally in the struggle of cover vs paper the cover pulled me in. I started the book on Sunday hoping to finish in one sitting, but reality interfered. It is a book best read in one go, I found it difficult to come back to it, but when I finally did it kept me going to the end.

Now you know it is not necessarily the easiest read, I’ll try to explain why I think it is worth it. It is a story of Yeong-hye told in three chapters by her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, starting with Yeong-hye’s announcement that she will not eat meat anymore, because of the dream she had. I don’t know Korean cuisine too well, but as it is presented in the book it seems pretty heavy on meat, so Yeong-hye’s decision is not well seen by her husband or her family. From here the events spiral out of control over the next three years.

The three parts of the book show very different perspective, but in each of the Yeong-hye’s decision to be different forms the axis around which other characters orbit. She and her decision being immovable. It is a study of people reacting to difference, to someone not obeying the rules. The husband reacts with hostility and violence, he never had particularly warm feeling towards Yeong-hye. He married her because she was average and that was what he needed in his life. He sees her decision as a personal attack and responds in kind, first calling in her family and then resorting to violence. Tension of this part of the book is building towards an unavoidable climax.

In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine has done.

I just couldn’t understand her. Only then did I realize: I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman.

Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law picks up the story two years later. He becomes obsessed with her strangeness, with her refusal to obey the rules. He does not see it as a mental illness, but more as freedom that hold an immense appeal to him. The first two parts are also an interesting glimpse of how men see their relationships and partners, how they perceive women.

She was even grateful that he had let her take on so much responsibility, running a business as well as a household, without so much as a word of complaint.

She’s a good woman, he thought. The kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive.

Third part told by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, is different. It has been three years since Yeong-hye became vegetarian and a year since In-hye’s husband left her. By now Yeong-hye is in a hospital, denounced by her whole family, apart form her ever responsible sister. Both of them are damaged in some way, Yeong-hye still refuses to eat meat trying to free her soul from her animal body, while In-hye cannot sleep. She loves her sister but also resents her for so effortlessly going over the boundaries that In-hye feels trapped in.

Though the ostensible reason for her not having wanted Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all 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.

For the first time, she became vividly aware of how much of her life she had spent with her husband. It had been a period of time utterly devoid of happiness and spontaneity. A time which she’d so far managed to get through only by using up every last reserve of perseverance and consideration. All of it self-inflicted.

For such a short one this book packs a lot of punch. It is distanced but never cold, there is always a vein throbbing just under the surface. Short sentences, not a single unnecessary word it is literature at its best. Every measure used to evoke emotions, not a coma wasted. This book almost never shouts, it is very controlled, and yet it makes you feel the fury, rage, obsession, guilt and lust the characters feel.

Not an easy read, not a pleasant one, and yet so worth it, read it in one sitting if you can, to fully immerse yourselves in this cruel world where people try to escape suffering in different ways.

It is such a complex book that I feel my review doesn’t do it justice, so find here links to some other reviews looking at the book from different angles:

Simon at Savidge Reads
Sara at Hard Book Habit
Shoshi’s Book Blog
The Writes of Woman
Heather at Bits&Books
Clare at A Little Blog of Books
Andy at wordsandpictures
Felicity at boats against the current
Preeti at the good book corner
Fran at Fran Reads
Jessica at Like Bears to Honey

Have you read it? What are your thoughts? Did you have a different favorite for the Man Booker Prize?

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

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9 thoughts on “The Vegetarian – Han Kang

  1. Thanks for the link to my review!! I definitely agree that it was a difficult book to pigeonhole into a review – there were so many different angles to consider that I felt like I couldn’t do justice to capturing the whole scope of the book! I found the purely external viewpoint really interesting, and there was so much of Yeong-hye’s character that the reader was merely left to speculate over. I still find myself wondering about the impetus behind her violent dreams and the violent impulses that she sought to suppress with her vegetarianism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is amazing how much different topics are packed in such a short book. I still come up with new things when I think about this book and will probably come up with even more when I’m ready to reread it.

      Like

  2. Sarah

    ‘There is always a vein throbbing just under the surface’ – this really captures it exactly! Great review, I’m glad you ‘liked’ it, if that’s the right word. Oh, and thanks so much for the blog link 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Distanced but never cold is such a good way to describe this book! I agree with everything you’ve said here, it was definitely one of the more challenging books I’ve read, and one that kept me thinking long after I finished it. I’m very glad to see it won the Man Booker – it definitely lived up to all the hype!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this last week and I was so sure that I was going to give it three stars, but that third section from her sister’s POV really was stunning, and lifted my thoughts about the whole. It was certainly a very challenging reading experience, but I am glad that I read it. Enjoyed your review! (I’m still pondering mine – hope to get it out this week.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review (and thanks for sharing mine!). Months after reading The Vegetarian I have mixed thoughts about it. I can see why it won the MBIP, it really is a masterpiece. I thought it was amazing, but I don’t know if I actually *liked* it. There’s just so much to explore in it that I don’t think one reading does it justice.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: May round-up – bookskeptic.com

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