The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Rating: 5 stars
I loved Human Acts, Kang’s latest work, and couldn’t wait to read her novel that won the Man Booker International Prize. It did not disappoint. It was unsettling, haunting, and incredibly weird at parts (mainly thinking about the second section), but it lived up to its critical acclaim.
The best way to describe this is beautifully haunting, or hauntingly beautiful. Kang tells in incredibly bizarre and sometimes violent story of one woman’s decision about her body in emotionally moving prose. She lets the story stand on its own with perfectly simple yet poetic language. I feel so pretentious just writing that, but it is an amazing book.
The Vegetarian starts with a perfectly ordinary man in South Korea going about his life perfectly content. Then one day his wife has a dream and throws out all of the meat in the house, becoming a vegetarian. He sees this as a serious threat to the unremarkable and socially accepted life they had that he desperately wants to keep. His previously quiet and submissive wife isn’t reconsidering, though, and instead chooses takes a stand on this choice.
Despite it being her body, there is a disturbing insinuation that she should not be able to make decisions that don’t have his approval. When her family get involved next they claim it is because of her health. However, her father’s rage when she disobeys his order to eat meat shows that control and power also play a role. Does she as a human being get to control what she does with her body, or as a woman are her choices able to be vetoed by the men in her life?
As the book progresses we see the effects of her choice through three people: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. It’s interesting that we never get to see her life from her point of view. I particularly enjoyed the sister’s part as it explored the obligations people have to those around them and also whether or not is it possible to shed some of the more violent aspects of our nature.
I highly recommend this anyone interested in a haunting tale of a woman’s life or contemporary Korean literature.