Han Kang “The Vegetarian”

Han Kang is a South Korean writer who was awarded the Man Booker Prize for her book The Vegetarian in 2016. It was also one of her first works to be translated into English and 22 other languages. The novel set in modern day South Korea brings to life certain concrete aspects of human life and society that have the power to make one reflect, in horror and/or disgust in and around themselves.

When I picked up the book, I certainly was not expecting it to unfold the way it did.

Divided in three parts, the book follows the life of a young woman Yeong-Hye, an obedient wife and daughter who is “completely unremarkable in every way”. Her decision to stop eating meat following a dream tells a harrowing tale set in a patriarchal society where a woman’s decision and her body aren’t worth considering. Throughout the book, Yeong-Hye is given a voice only when she describes her dreams. The story otherwise is from the perspectives of her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister.

In the first part we encounter Yeong-Hye’s firm decision to turn Vegetarian to her husband and family’s dismay and the “shame” she brings to them. There are instances that reflect greatly on the culture that diminishes a woman’s identity as an individual. Second part trails a new chapter for Yeong-Hye where she discovers new aspects of her life, individuality, sexuality and general preferences that make her a woman. But it is quickly shadowed by her brother-in-law’s lust. The final section discovers the spiraled down life of In-Hye, Yeong-Hye’s sister and herself.

Playing on several themes throughout, from autonomy over one’s body and show of resistance to misunderstandings and madness, It portrays humans in such a raw and honest light that makes you uncomfortable. The book shines a light on mental illness, lust, going against the flow and how it affects not only an individual but also others around them. How a simple choice of renouncing something one cannot align with results in violent and unacceptable consequences in a patriarchal society. 

Rummaging through chaotic emotions, I found myself hesitating to know what the next chapter held yet I couldn’t stop myself from turning the page. At the beginning, the story starts in a quiet mundane way but it grips you out of nowhere as the first chapter progresses. I’d recommend this book to everyone who enjoys delving in thought-provoking and slightly bizarre and disturbing pieces.

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London : Portobello, 2015

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Devika Tawniya

Volunteer in the Department of Literature in Foreign Languages

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