The Vegetarian by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith #WITMonth

A novel in three acts that centre around the middle sister whose behaviour goes relatively unnoticed by those around her until she decides to become vegetarian, because “I had a dream“.

I’m already under the spell of Han Kang, having read Human Acts earlier this year, an extraordinary and unique book and I find The Vegetarian equally compelling, perhaps even more disturbing, a visceral, disturbing depiction of the fragility of the mind and the strange mechanisms, illusions we attach to in order to cope. It won the Man Booker International Prize 2016 and I’m reading it as part of #WITMonth, reading women in translation.

The Vegetarian reminded me of the distressing yet refined style and experience of reading Yoko Ogawa’s novel of interlinked stories Revenge and the shock and compulsion of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but really it is in a league of its own, a remarkable literary expression of the effect of people, our external environment and of our internal methods of coping, questions Han Kang poses through the situations she puts these characters into and our observations of what then happens.

The book is structured into three parts:

I. The Vegetarian – right from the beginning Kang draws up the husband and wife (Yeong-hye) characters with such precision, skill and intrigue, I was completely hooked from those initial pages. Their uneventful life changes suddenly with her decision to become vegetarian, bringing out the worst in everyone.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her…However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.

II. Mongolian Mark – this is a reference to a kind of birthmark that disappears post adolescence, it becomes the cause of an infatuation by Yeong-hye’s narcissistic brother-in-law, the obsessive video artist who is inspired to create what he perceives will be his greatest work, if he can convince his sister-in-law to become the subject of his oeuvre, and balance the fine line between art and pornography.

‘Will the dreams stop now?’ she muttered, her voice barely audible.

III. Flaming Trees Yeong-hye is in a psychiatric hospital, her sister her only visitor, the visits and the realisations she is having take their toll on her as she begins to understand her sisters descent from being human into believing that she is like or wishes to become a tree, that all she needs is sunlight and moisture, slowly depriving her human form of sustenance.

This pain and insomnia which, unbeknownst to others, now has In-hye in its grip – might Yeong-hye have passed through this same phase herself, a long time ago and more quickly than most people? Might Yeong-hye’s current condition be the natural progression from what her sister has recently been experiencing? Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread which had kept her connected with everyday life.

It’s a sad tale of a woman’s descent into madness and how it affects those around her and has the reader wondering if this was brought about by the effect of attitudes and behaviour towards this one woman or whether this was something that was in her all along, something that is in everyone and under certain terrible circumstances can degenerate a sensitive human being into such a state.

Not one to let the reader off so easily Han Kang explores all avenues and leaves the reader continuing to ponder the same questions that perhaps inspired her to create this extraordinary, award-winning novel.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of The Vegetarian via Book Depository

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30 thoughts on “The Vegetarian by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith #WITMonth

  1. I’ve been resisting this one for quite a while, but your comparison with Yoko Ogawa leads me to think that I would like this book very much. I loved the eerie stories in Revenge with all those recurring motifs threaded through the book. Some of the images come back into my mind every now and again – the heart-shaped bag, the carrot that looked like a hand. others too.

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    • Han Kang is firstly an interesting thinker, the questions she poses about humanity and the subjects she explores in order to try and find some understanding of ‘to be human’ is alluring and then the creative expression she is capable of writing, the characters and story that carry that thinking is quite incredible.

      As you may remember, I came across her after reading Naomi’s account of listening to her speak at Foyles and it was her motivation for writing Human Acts that drew me into reading it, not for the story so much, as how was this writer going to answer those questions ? Having read that book, it gave me that already questioning perspective in terms of this work, it’s always about ‘what questions is she trying to find the answer to here’. An absolute favourite author for me now.

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  2. I found both Han Kang’s books utterly compelling, It’s now some months since I read them, but in their different ways, they have stayed with me, and I know that – unusually for me – I shall re-read them both. I fully expect to be moved again, but to notice aspects of both books that passed me by on first reading.

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    • They are indeed both books that deserve a second reading and are incredibly thought provoking, she takes the reader to come dark places in order to explore the mind and humanity and that won’t always be what readers are expecting, it certainly helps to understand something of the motivation and intentions of the writer.

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    • I’d read her before but was still blown away by what she achieves in this one and still thinking about it. Felicity at Boats Against the Current makes the really poignant and insightful observation about the fact that all three sections are viewed from the narrative perspective of others, her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, never Yeong-hye herself:

      This conscious decision to exclude Yeong-hye’s narration only serves to heighten the mystery and ambiguity surrounding her character, the inexplicable and dreamlike world that she inhabits that others strive to repress, possess, understand.

      It makes us wonder how authentic our perceptions are when she is never given voice, only ever observed through others. So much to digest!

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  3. I have a copy of this and hope to get to it soon. I must say your review confirms the impression of it that I’ve gathered from elsewhere – that it’s not in any way an easy book but one that more than repays the effort.

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    • For such a thought provoking novel, it’s a pretty quick read, I hope you get to it in August! All Han Kang’s books seem to come from a place of deep questioning of humanity and coloured by terrible things she became aware of from a young age, this her way to explore them.

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  4. I’m glad I read your review. I haven’t read any of the other works you’ve mentioned. How easy do you find switching off after reading these books? I find myself spending hours trying to process what I read. And, unlike films, it’s hard to erase what I read.😦

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    • I guess that’s one of the reasons for writing reviews, because there are things that we would like to offload in a conversation and we don’t always have the opportunity to do that in real life, so we write. I love that books are thought provoking and get me thinking and stay with me for days and weeks and I love that I have a space to gather those thoughts, a place without judgement, to they can be as free as anything and as questioning because there is always someone who has already the book and might have something to add.

      I find images from film harder to erase, probably I’ve had no part in imagining a scene and often the images are created to have a disturbing or shocking or frightening effect.

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  5. I completely agree with the Ogawa comparison, they both have that oddness that haunts the narrative and the reader. It’s more than 18 months since I read The Vegetarian and I’m still thinking about it.

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    • Thanks to your introduction via the book reading at Foyles I read Human Acts first which I thought was an incredible novel and also unique given its relation to the very real events and places that inspired it, so I was curious to know what reading a novel without that reference would be like and I recognise pretty early on that motivation she has to ask certain questions ad create situations that show how people react, often reflecting her disappointment in humanity that she struggles to accept she is a part of.

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  6. Great review and good to read your thoughts about it, Claire! This is one of those novels that still haunts me where I’ll think about it now and then. It’s so interesting how she portrays Yeong-hye’s inner world so intensely yet shows us it through the perspective of other characters. It’s so interesting how it contrasts to Human Acts as well. You’ve perked my interest to read Ogawa’s stories since I’ve only read The Housekeeper and the Professor.

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    • Reading Yoko Ogawa’s eleven dark tales is not just a fabulous reading experience, it’s like an intense writing course, she powers out one compelling story after the other, with the thinnest of threads connecting them and completely destroyed my usual amble with short story collections, dipping in and out at leisure, this one I couldn’t put down, I just read them one after the other like a glutton!

      As the Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburō Ōe said and perhaps one of the reasons why I find similarities with Han Kang:

      ‘Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating.’

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  7. Both Han Kang’s books are excellent, but as Naomi says The Vegetarian is truly thought provoking and stays with you for a long time afterwards. The comparison to Ogawa is a good one, both writers are quite uncompromising in their approach.

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    • Yes, Ogawa seems to be able to write quite a spectrum of stories and digs deep into her characters making them very compelling to read about, Han Kang uses her characters to carry a message about human nature, and for the moment it is dark indeed. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Bookbii.

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  8. Well, you wonderful reviewer, you…with this one sentence you have said what I couldn’t express:

    “…a visceral, disturbing depiction of the fragility of the mind and the strange mechanisms, illusions we attach to in order to cope.”

    There’s the whole book right there, as far as I’m concerned, and the imagery contained within its pages is also unforgettable to me.

    Brilliant review.

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    • Thank you kindly for the compliment Bellezza and for understanding what I was trying to say, it’s not easy is it to try and condense what the book is really about and I think there are multiple points of view in that respect as well, every reader will see and react to it slightly differently. Such a brilliant writer, I really admire her talent.

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    • Couldn’t receive a finer compliment than that! Thank you for your kind words and I look forward to hearing what you think of the book. I recommend her other novel too Human Acts, I thought that was an incredible and unique read as well.

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  9. Brilliant review, Claire! As you know, I wasn’t a big fan of The Vegetarian because I think I went into with different expectations than you did. However, I can certainly see the points you made in your review. The Vegetarian certainly focuses Yeong-hye’s mental health and eventual madness. I’m going to give Kang’s Human Acts a try, however.🙂

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    • Thanks for reading my review and commenting Summer, I do think that my thoughts on her work are influenced by how I came across her (reading a report of a book reading and discussion where she talked about her motivations for writing Human Acts) and the fact that I read that book first. After reading that, it made me both very curious and very open minded about how she might approach a novel. I think it helps to understand her motivations, the questions she is asking of humanity. I’m really pleased you’re going to try Human Acts.

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