Book Review: The Vegetarian

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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, by Han Kang

A few years ago, I read Please Look After Mom. I don’t remember the last time I read a Korean novel before that, but suffice it to say it had been a few years. I read Please Look After Mom in English, because although I can read Korean, I knew attempting to read it in Korean might slow me down. Plus, I was curious about how certain words and ideas would be translated into English. I often resort to speaking a mix of English and Korean when in conversation with anyone who understands both languages, since it’s difficult to express certain ideas in both languages. Despite not having lived in Korea for more than ten years, and sometimes feeling disconnected to my culture, I thoroughly enjoyed Please Look After Mom.

The Vegetarian is a novella written by the Korean writer Han Kang. My dad, who often encourages me to explore Korean books and media, mentioned the novel to me, saying that it had won the Man Booker International Prize. When I stumbled onto the book at my local library, I picked it up. It happened to be under 200 pages, so I thought it’d be a quick read. Despite its length, though, The Vegetarian takes some mental energy to get through.

The titular vegetarian is Yeong-hye, a typical Korean housewife who decides to turn to vegetarianism after a disturbing dream. Her decision causes irrevocable damage to her relationships with her husband and family, especially her older sister (who coincidentally shares my name) and brother-in-law. The premise itself is closely tied to contemporary Korean culture, which generally views vegetarianism as a somewhat foolish, unnecessary luxury, other than for Buddhist monks. As a country that experienced extreme poverty until fairly recently, refusing to eat meat is often seen as “being picky”, rather than a valid choice.

I found similar themes in The Vegetarian as in Please Look After Mom, specifically the role of women in Korean society. While Yeong-hye is not a mother, she is a stay-at-home wife whose tasks of cooking every meal for her husband and helping him put on his suit in the morning define her existence. Her husband, and later, her family’s insistence that she cook and eat meat as to avoid discomforting her husband and his business associates is symptomatic of the traditional Korean expectation that a wife sacrifice her personal desires to support her husband. The novel challenges Korean society’s views on family, marriage, sex, and mental health by having Yeong-hye cross almost every line imaginable.

Other than that, there are many passages in the novel that are somewhat gruesome, due to the subject matter of Yeong-hye’s aversion to meat. There are instances of self-harm and sexual assault that made me feel uncomfortable and sometimes queasy. However, I believe this is an important book: one that sheds light on Korean society, while also effectively portraying universally relatable ideas.

YES OR NO?: YESThe Vegetarian is not for everyone, due to its subject matter, which can be graphic and upsetting. However, I would recommend this book for those that are interested. It is short, compelling, thought-provoking, and I believe that you should read something that makes you uncomfortable once in a while.

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