The Vegetarian


Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (beautifully rendered in English by Deborah Smith) was one of the first, if not the first, novel of 2015 to be greeted with excited praise, something evident in the ecstatic anticipation in evidence prior to the publication of Human Acts, her second novel to appear in English, in just a few weeks. The novel tells the story of a young woman, Yeong-hye, who decides to become a vegetarian, and of the cataclysmic effect this has on her family, her marriage, and her life. The novel is told in three parts, by three different narrators – none of them Yeong-hye. This would be surprising were it not for the fact that it becomes increasingly evident that she is not listened to, or understood, by those around her, and that her voicelessness is a facet of her slow vanishing from the narrative.

The first part, ‘The Vegetarian’, is told from the point of view of her husband, Cheong, who immediately sums up his wife as “completely unremarkable in every way.” His decision to marry her comes some way short of true love:

“However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.”

Marrying Yeong-hye is predicated on the impossibility of her ever shocking or surprising him – he praises her “passive personality” – and therefore how much more shocked and surprised he is when she declares that she will no longer eat meat as a result of as dream she has had. It becomes clear that her vegetarianism is not for moral or health reasons, but because she has developed a revulsion to meat; she refuses to sleep with her husband because of “the meat smell. Your body smells of meat.” Eventually, Cheong contacts Yeong-hye’s family and the first section climaxes in a violent scene when her father attempts to force her to eat meat.

Between each section, time passes, and by the time ‘Mongolian Mark’ begins, Cheong has left his wife. The second story is told in the third person but from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law who develops an erotic obsession with Yeong-hye centred around her Mongolian mark – a birth mark which, as he explains, “appeared on the buttocks or backs of children only, always fading away completely before adulthood.” This unconsciously reveals what attracts him to Yeong-Hye, her childlike helplessness, exacerbated by her now emaciated body. He develops a plan to video her painted with flowers (less strange than it sounds as he is, apparently, a video artist). Does this suggest he understands her (she longs to become one with nature in some way) or is it an example of him objectifying her? When he has himself similarly painted so that she will sleep with him, you can’t help but feel it’s more desire than art, and the coupling which follows is ambiguous to say the least.

By the third part, ‘Flaming Trees’, narrated by her sister, Yeong-hye is hospitalised, diagnosed with anorexia. In-hye’s marriage has also ended, having finally fallen apart on the night she found her husband and her sister together. By this point, Yeong-hye has convinced herself she no longer needs food; she mentions a dream in which she is a tree:

“I was standing on my head…leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands…so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom form my crotch so I spread my legs.”

The clinic are going to attempt to feed her through a tube one last time in a scene that can only remind us of her father forcing meat into her mouth.

The Vegetarian can, of course, be read as an account of mental illness, and the damage it can cause not only to the victim but to the family. Yeong-hye’s story also seems to be one of a woman who is not listened to, surrounded by others who think they know better. You might also argue, the sanity of the other characters is called into question: her husband, rigid and unfeeling; her father’s violent rage; her brother-in-law’s obsessive lust and rush towards death when discovered; even her sister, the most sympathetic, who feels “her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance.” Fascinating, strange, the novel is not unlike a body painted with flowers, its naked truth glittering with images.

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18 Responses to “The Vegetarian”

  1. Tony Says:

    I’d be very surprised if this isn’t up for the Man Booker Int. – almost universally praised 🙂

  2. poppypeacockpens Says:

    I just bought this yesterday so have earmarked to read your review once I’ve read it (and possibly reviewed it, time permitting) ☺

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m glad I’m not the last to read it! I’d waited until August to buy it as I got a signed copy at the Edinburgh Book Festival, but still took another four months to get round to reading it!

  3. Slightly Bookist Says:

    I’m one of the ones eagerly anticipating Human Acts. Love your review of The Vegetarian.

  4. roughghosts Says:

    I have been aware of this book for a long time, of course, but your review makes it sound more fascinating than ever. I won’t get this one in before year’s end but it has been on my virtual wishlist forever. We don’t have that great cover here though, sadly.

  5. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve seen so many positive reports about this novel, and your excellent review confirms its merits. And yet for some reason which I’m struggling to put my finger on, it doesn’t appeal to me. I wonder if I might find it a little too uncomfortable…

    • 1streading Says:

      I was going to say that the last section is particularly uncomfortable, but I suspect that it will differ from individual to individual. The novel certainly taps into that feeling, whether socially or physically.

  6. winstonsdad Says:

    I loved it but always wary.of hyped books agree with tony re man international there whether it is will be another question

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Like Jacqui I’ve read nothing but glowing reviews, and yours makes an excellent case for it, yet I remain a bit untempted. The good news though is that this does mean that you’re definitely not the last to get to it!

    Perhaps it’s what Stu alludes to, and it’s just that the hype (however deserved) has put me off and I need to wait for that to die down, as I did with say Hawthorn and Child (which was in fact very good as it turned out).

    • 1streading Says:

      I must admit I also sometimes feel discouraged from reading hyped books (sometimes rightly!). One of the problems with Twitter is that it can sometimes feel that everyone has read a book before it is even published! Of course, the other side of that is that sometimes books entirely deserve the praise. In the end you don’t lose anything by coming to a book later.

  8. Man Booker International Prize 2016 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Kang (South Korea) Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (Portobello […]

  9. 2016 Man Booker International Longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    […] Grant’s at 1st Reading […]

  10. Man Booker International Prize Shortlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Kang (South Korea) Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (Portobello […]

  11. The White Book | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Kang’s The White Book is very different to her two previous novels, The Vegetarian and Human Acts. It is, as she has said herself, “difficult to classify, a kind of essay cum prose […]

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