Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2016)



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Hmm. I was looking forward to reading this book because it was set in Korea and because I’m a vegan.
Unfortunately, I found it a disappointing and bewildering read. I liked some of the imagery. There was a vague sense of weirdness and the main character seemed almost to be turning into a plant. I understood the way she pushed back against the authority of her husband and family. But the various perspectives in the book, particularly the sister’s at the end, left me confused and unsatisfied as to what was actually going on.

Young-Hye, the titular “vegetarian”, first stops eating meat, milk, and eggs, and then eventually becomes extremely thin and anorexic. She doesn’t want to eat anything, claiming that, like a tree, she only needs sunlight to live. It seems she is mentally ill. The first two parts of the book are written by men — first her husband and then her brother-in-law. They both look at Young-Hye through the veil of their own wants, desires, and prejudices. I liked these two sections of the book better than the third, because they very well related how Young-Hye was treated as a vessel and yet rebelled against that and did her own (psychotic) thing.

The third section is the sister’s perspective, and that was the most confusing to me. The sister is also quite unhinged, it turns out, at least in her own mind. I kept wondering if some twist was coming, like the two sisters were actually one person, or something truly supernatural were going on. Instead the book ends in a vague way that answered no questions at all. The most I could walk away with was that Young-Hye rebelled against her life of domestic servitude by refusing to eat (to the point of death ala anorexia), and her sister wished she could do the same. But that doesn’t feel like a real solution to the book either. There’s so much imagery of plants and woods, but it wasn’t clear to me what they represented.

Not sure what to make of it. This is the sort of book that would be helpful to discuss with others.

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