The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize) is an understated, darkly rich story. The vegetarian is a Korean housewife named Yeong-hye. Starting with a section narrated by her husband, the novel begins with the sentence, “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way,” and continues to describe her in more unflattering ways. She is a timid housewife who stays out of the way and does everything for her overworked husband, until she starts having violent, bloody dreams, and almost immediately stops eating meat. She also stops being the same timid housewife. First she stops cooking her husband dinner (because she doesn’t want to cook meat, and she doesn’t seem interesting in replacing it in her diet with anything substantial), and then she starts acting bizarrely and wandering around the house naked, much to the embarrassment of her husband.

The story alternates between different point of views, starting with Yeong-hye’s husband, than her artist brother-in-law who secretly has the hots for her, and finally her career woman sister who sticks with her until the end. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism worries her family, but it also makes them angry. Yeong-hye’s abusive father tries to force-feed her meat, which leads to a violent outburst that lands her in the mental hospital. The reader only gets small snippets into Yeong-hye’s mind, but it’s enough to know that her new diet isn’t a typical vegetarian diet. She is practically starving herself, but her family is convinced that if she would just eat meat again she would get better. They are furious about what the see as her stubborn, disrespectful behavior.

In becoming a vegetarian and refusing to listen to her family’s insistence that she eats meat, Yeong-hye becomes an inconvenient woman. My favorite scene in the novel is when Yeong-hye’s husband takes her along on a dinner with his boss and his wife. Yeong-hye makes everyone uncomfortable by hardly eating anything, and her husband is furious and embarrassed. This novel says a lot about the autonomy of women through Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism, which can be read as both insanity and defiance. The novel itself is concise and short, but very literary in its execution. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worth checking out for fans of literary fiction.

I’m currently reading…Sex Object by Jessica Valenti. Let me know what you’re reading in the comments. 🙂

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