My Thoughts About The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Book Review #113)

And it’s been a week since my last post. My apologies if I haven’t posted anything on my blog for a week because I’ve been quite busy with a lot of stuff recently. I’ve been reading (and hauling books) but because I was always so tired, I was in no mood to write reviews. I open my laptop, stare at the screen, try to write a post, revise it, delete the file because I was not satisfied with it then repeat the process again. So, I said to my self, forget it, I’ll just review a book when I feel like doing so. I calmed myself and just think that this may just be a phase. So yeah, I’m back now! I’ll really try to avoid this no-post-in-a week thing from happening again. Hello to my new subscribers by the way! πŸ™‚

One of the books that I finished on that week-long blogging hiatus was this book, The Vegetarian by Han Kang. This book was so hyped up late last year and during the beginning of this year so I’ve been really meaning to read this one. So far based on that reviews that I’ve read from blogs and watched from Booktube, this is a very polarizing book. It’s either they totally enjoy it or they were totally weirded out by it and just DNF it so give it a low rating. I read the synopsis and it’s indeed intriguing. So since then, I already set my eye on this book as I want to have my own thoughts with it and see what my stand would be. And also, this is my first book by a Korean author so just imagine me being so excited when I finally got my hands on this book. After finishing it, it took me a wile to process and take in what I just read. I was not sure what to feel.

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One thing is sure about this book which made me now totally understand the buzz about it. This book is weird. I mean, really weird but that kind of weird that really made me want to stick to it and finish it. This book gave me a lot of WTF moments. This 183-page book gave me chills, sadness, disgust, excitement all at the same time. It helped that all the reviews that I watched and reviewed were all non-spoilery as that made me enjoy the feeling of being weirded out while reading it. I did enjoy this book. I totally enjoyed it. I believe that it can be attributed to the fact that the materials of this book was so ingeniously done. From the story line, structure, plot and to the characters. At some point I felt like I was reading a Haruki Murakami book. I don’t know what’s this with East Asian authors? The way they write their stories is so atmospheric. It’s like I’m being transported in a different world where there stories are set. I like that vibe that their characters project and there’s something melancholic about their settings. Their works just easily provokes my emotions. I’m really obsess now with them. I’m guessing that the best book that I’ll read this year will be from that region. πŸ™‚ And this might be the sign for me really take reading diversely seriously.

Set in South Korea, the book follows the story of Yeong-hye, who at the beginning of the story was an obliged wife. She’s happy to be the wife who diligently serves her husband, Mr. Cheong. Until one day, caused by a dream, she decided that she’ll become a vegetarian. She threw every meat in the freezer. Her husband thought that it will soon pass but it never did. Tension arose and their relationship started to fracture. Her decision also affected her relationship with her family, who did not accept it lightly. Seeing the effect of her change in lifestyle in Yeong-hye’s physical being, her family forced her to go back to what she’s used to be.

Yeong-hye was like trapped in a dream that became so hard for her to express. No one was able to understand her and her actions. Her dreams are these graphic and bloody scenes that became too hard for her to also explain. Yeong-hye’s thoughts and dreams are interspersed in between the main story line. Readers get the chance to take a view of what she thinks and how graphic her dreams are justifying Yeong-hye’s weird actions and behavior. It came to a point that sleeping became very hard for her. She submitted herself to being a vegetarian believing that that will take those dreams away. Employing force to make her change her mind did nothing to her. Yeong-hye stood by her decision and as her relationship with her family drifted away, violence ensued causing her to do something that became one of the main turning point of the story. From there, the book follows the effect of Yeong-hye’s decision to the people around her, Mr. Cheong deciding to end their relationship, her family disintegrating because of their contrasting opinions about the matter and to eventually finding herself in a mental institution.

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As the story progress, Yeong-hye’s actions started to get weirder and weirder which became a sign of her mental degradation landing her at a mental institution. She started from not wearing a bra to eventually gonging topless in public. She agreed in becoming a body paint model then unknowingly agreed to be abused. She started from not eating meat to eventually not eating at all as she believes that basking in the sun and only drinking water will give her all the energy that she needs as she assumes the role of a tree which eventually caused her to be both physically and emotionally starved.

The book is written in three parts: the first part, “The Vegetarian”, covers Yeong-hye and her vividly written troubled dreams that made her decide to become a vegetarian as that what she believes will make those dreams go away. It also covers her family’s reaction to that choice and Yeong-hye’s eventual meltdown. The second part, “Mongolian Mark”, covers Yeong-hye’s “relationship” with her brother-in-law. A virtual artist who wants to prove himself by making a comeback that will star Yeong-hye. She became too obsessed with Yeong-hye and his birthmark in her buttocks to the point that his perversion cause his eventual falldown. The third part, “Flaming Trees”, covers Yeong-hye’s relationship with her older sister, In-hye, as she try to deal with what happened to her two families. The stories are told thru the point of views of Yeong-hye’s husband, her brother-in-law and her sister respectively.

The book is basically not about vegetarianism as it is. It explores a more complex theme that is about the choices that we make and it’s effect to the people around us. The book discusses conformity to societal norms and the effect of going against it. It became a criticism of Yong-hae’s society when she tried to be different. By doing so, the other characters were able to re-examine their lives. Each family member in this story felt that it’s their responsibility to return Yeong-hye to her old self. A responsibility that took a different turn as each had it’s own way of doing it. Yeong-hae drifted away without no one actually noticing and understanding what’s actually happening to her.

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The book took me on a roller coaster ride of emotions with it’s intricate story. Yeong-hye’s transformation from a character that is lively, to her life slowly spiraling downwards until the moment that she eventually succumbed and became solitary is really unsettling but something where readers can reflect upon. I totally felt the pain, despair and confusion of the characters. The story is disturbing but compelling at the same time. There’s that feeling of being inside the mind of the characters and analyzing who they truly are. The dialogues of the characters and how the author relays the story truly dug deep to my core. The storytelling for me is the strongest point of this novel. The flow of the story became so fluid until the ending. There are moments when I had to stop because there are some parts where the emotions that the book is reflecting becomes overwhelming. The ending is open for interpretation and I like it as that.

The book was translated to English by Deborah Smith and I must say that she was able to successfully deliver the message across. It’s totally on point. It’s so profound and her choice of simple but absorbing words helped in relaying the message of the book’s different themes. It also made the book very engaging.

Overall, for me this is a very good book. I recommend this book to everyone who wants to read something new. Someone who is willing to explore a unique story. If you love mystery/psychological thriller/literary fiction you can try this one.

5 stars out of 5.

The book won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

Note: My gratitude to Portobello Books for providing me a review copy in exchange for a honest and unbiased review. πŸ™‚ In no way was my opinion about the book influenced.

BOOK SPECIFICATIONS:

Author: Han Kang
Translator: Deborah Smith
Format: Paperback
Part of a Series: No
Release Year: November 2015
Publisher: Portobello Books
No. of Pages: 183 pages

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About the Author

4119155Han Kang is the daughter of novelist Han Seung-won. She was born in Kwangju and at the age of 10, moved to Suyuri (which she speaks of affectionately in her work “Greek Lessons”) in Seoul.

She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. She began her writing career when one of her poems was featured in the winter issue of the quarterly Literature and Society. She made her official literary debut in the following year when her short story “The Scarlet Anchor” was the winning entry in the daily Seoul Shinmun spring literary contest.

Since then, she has gone on to win the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. As of summer 2013, Han teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts while writing stories and novels. (Goodreads)

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