The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

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Every single one of them – her parents who had force-fed her meat, her husband and siblings who stood by and let it happen – were distant strangers, if not actual enemies.

What a strange, compelling novel. It’s the first one I’ve read for the Man Booker International Prize which didn’t feel almost arduous. It isn’t ever boring; it’s very brevity makes it a fast read. But don’t think that because it’s under 200 pages that diminishes the impact of the content.

The story is told through the point of view of Yeong-hye’s husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. Through their eyes we learn that Yeong-hye has one morning decided to give up eating meat, simply because she says she had a dream. In fact, to me, her entire character is depicted as if she’s in a dreamlike state, except for the times she acts out against people trying to force her to do something they want. At one point, her heavy handed father holds her down and forces a piece of meat into her mouth, after which she suddenly grabs a fruit knife and slices her wrist.

The cover of the novel depicts the flow of blood quite vividly in its brilliant red shade; the image of roots and leaves and branches depict the state of Yeong-hye’s desire with ever increasing accuracy.

I found it to be more of a psychological nature than a physical one. Yeong-hye is clearly disgusted at the state of the human condition, and it seems she is trying to shed any semblance of such.

“What other dimension might Yeong-hye’s soul have passed into, having shrugged off flesh like a snake shedding its skin? In-hue (her sister) recalled how Yeong-hye had looked when she’s been standing on her hands. Had Yeong-hye mistaken the hospital’s concrete floor for the soft earth of the woods? Had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the au down to earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, has the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventual to bloom from her crotch as flowers? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?”

Author Han Kang says, “The Vegetarian is the story of Yeong-hye who decides on an extreme vegetarian diet in order to reject the violence inherent in human nature. Eventually wanting no more part in the human race, and believing that she is becoming a plant, she refuses to consume anything but water. Though this is a desperate effort to save herself, the irony is that in reality she is bringing herself closer to death.”

We follow her story with a mixture of curiosity and awe, and when we come to the end, we find a strange sadness, even from her sister and her sister’s son. Surely Yeong-hye is not alone in her alienation, or her dream-like perspective.

Undoubtedly, The Vegetarian will be on the Man Booker International Prize short list.

Find Lori’s review at Words Without Borders, Clare’s review at A Little Blog of Books, Athira’s review at Reading On a Rainy Day, and Tony’s review at Messengers Booker.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Published in English in 2015
188 pages

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19 comments

  1. I thought this was an astonishing book and loved it. It was so different from everything else I’ve read before. I’m still gathering my thoughts to write about it. She also has a short story in Granta Magazine which is a precursor of this novel – The Fruit of my Woman.

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    1. It is an astonishing book to me, too. At first I was thinking that Han Kang was presenting some sort of reincarnation idea, until I remembered that she did give us the mental institution with our “heroine” as one of the patients. So this novel apparently gives us many things to think about: turning one’s back on the traditional, or even one’s family; coping with violence; mental illness. I can see that I would do well to read it again, but I know I will be thinking about it for a long, long time. The ideas were so new, the imagery so sharp.

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    1. She becomes a vegan. And eventually worse, refusing to eat anything at all as she is under the impression that she can live on water alone. As a plant does. It’s a really weird concept and really intriguing character.

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        1. Always you deepen the meaning of what I have written or thought. Of course a plant needs so much more than water: soil, air, sunlight. Perhaps that further shows us how narrow the “heroine’s” thinking has become, how confined, no trapped, she is in her own world. Missing more than one basic element for life.

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    1. That’s interesting, a “to-buy” list instead of “to look for.” I hope that your library has a copy, as mine amazingly did, as that is easier on the purse strings. 😉

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      1. I’m not sure if Brighton library will, if I’m perfectly honest it’s such a ‘out of my way’ type of journey to get there I don’t look. Rather lazy of me.

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    1. It’s one of my favorites from the long list so far. It is so wonderfully strange and new, unlike anything I’ve read before. And while I will always like books whose characters are speak specifically to me the best, this one surely stands out in the crowd. A good thing, I think.

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    1. Yes, the more I think about it the less enamored with it I am. I think the imagery that the author, and translator, have been able to create is fantastic. The images were, and still are, so vivid in my mind. But, was the overall story such an impact? No, not to me.

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