Book Review: The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
Kang, Han
4 stars = Really Good

In this inventive South Korean novel (based on an earlier short story by the author), a woman decides to become a vegetarian after a disturbing, blood-soaked dream leaves her convinced that she needs to purify herself. Yeong-hye remains largely a mystery to us throughout the novel -- we hear about the situation mainly from her husband, brother-in-law, and sister, and they're often more interested in what they want from her (passivity, "normal" behavior, sexual gratification) than in understanding what's happening inside her mind. It's interesting to watch the escalation of behavior that's considered inappropriate; even the most mild changes to her routine provoke violent reactions and eventually lead her family members to cross lines of their own. At first, not eating meat alone is shocking and indicative of disrespect for her husband, then a refusal to wear a bra, then a discomfort with speaking -- and the gap widens more and more between Yeong-hye and the people around her as she withdraws from the world in her obsession with becoming more plant than animal.

Still, despite the oddity of the premise, it reads more like horror than comedy, and there was some real emotional weight to Yeong-hye's problems and to the exploration of the internal lives of her family as they react to her rebellion in increasingly bizarre ways. I liked the first section (dealing with the destruction of Yeong-hye's marriage) more than others, but they were all fascinating, and the sister's perspective helped bring things to a satisfying conclusion. Some parts were a bit too on the nose for my taste, but it was an engrossing read overall. There was a lot of reflection on the position and treatment of women in modern-day South Korea, which may interest some readers, as well as a more general look at the everyday violence around us, people's inner desires, and the pressure to conform. (I'd give this 3.5 stars if I could, but I rounded up because the writing deserved it.)

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