The Vegetarian by Han Kang — Book Review

The Vegetarian is an extremely interesting plot developed by Han Kang. Awarded The Man Booker International Prize, the book has been raising ovations all over the UK since its translation from Korean to English by Deborah Smith, on a release by Portobello books. I always tend to suspect when there’s too much consensus, a trace that’d be good (if not fundamental) for any critic, if it weren’t so freaking boring. Just keep reading this and you should quickly become apt to start ruining informal dinner party conversations on your own. Annoying people of the world, unite!

The book has a brilliant premise — who am I to say The Man Booker International prize is wrong? But it is brilliant, really, regardless of irony. A non-remarkable woman who suddenly becomes not only vegetarian but interesting enough to protagonise some almost two hundred mildly compelling pages. Within time, the protagonist stops eating altogether, gets admitted by a loony-bin, abandoned by her parents as well as by her rapey husband (good riddance!) only to finally be left under the supervision of her elder sister. She’s a muted version of Lars Von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark (Bjork was blind, remember? Get it? Get the joke? An? An?), a Korean Bartleby on skirts, a post-modern Candid by Voltaire if you will (minus, of course, the historical context, the country where the plot takes place, the language and the philosophical perspective). Whether the protagonist’s refusal by and of society is the sign of hers or society’s craziness is left open to interpretation, though I personally always think it’s society, but don’t listen to me.

In times when snuff movies are almost standard, it is increasingly difficult (or dare I say ‘harder’?) to find original yet simple stories. The Vegetarian is most certainly remarkable in this regard — “much unlike its protagonist!” the rapey husband shouts in the back.

Her story is narrated by the husband, the brother-in-law and the sister respectively, never by herself, which says a lot without saying anything, right? Do we all agree that this insinuates her lack of personal voice, or at the very least, that her voice is not heard?

And yet, the premise itself, that is, the very idea of her ordinarity seems too artificial sometimes, perhaps stretched in order to better fit the plot like when we try to put the plastic back on the cigarrete pack. The same husband who on the first page had highlighted her being “completely unremarkable in every way” will, later on, contradict himself by highlighting, look at that, ‘notorious’ traces of her personality like her cooking, her lack of passion, and her quietness. The unbearable-lightness-of- the-being-much? Uncomprehensive metaphysics-of-the-opposition-much? Come on, the theme of complementary opposites is not anywhere else in the book, so this is not what’s up here. I intuit it’s something else. Follow me this way, please.

It is indeed hard to build an unremarkable character. Why the hell would we be reading about them if they weren’t remarkable in some way? Perhaps a pinch of Crime and Punishment could help build a socially awkward, in no way notorious character…a minute of silence in the name of our almighty Dostoyevski and its first- person narrators. Perhaps even something simple such as further justification of such a premise could have made me happier (and god knows how many people far more important are happier than I am with Mrs Kang’s book, so I do understand the irony of my position). No explanation has come my way, so I was left with an itch to call the rapey husband and ask whether he becomes contradictory on a post-scriptum draft saved under the author’s bed, or if he’s plain dumb. If only I had his number…

A few set ups seemed poorly shaped, build-ups that lead nowhere like when her brother in law is being dragged away but we’re not informed where to until several lines after. We’re often taken by the hand, only to be abandoned before a too late climax or no climax at all. Yes, add sexual cheap joke here.

Other structural incoherencies like the poorly justified brother-in-law’s first call to our protagonist have left me wondering about the translation, the Korean culture and my own expectations.

Am I being too conservative to expect an aesthetical function for every literary tool? It’s always easy to point out wrongness with something that’s ready so maybe, just maybe, this here is just me being annoying once again. After all, I had loads of fun reading this meekly told and yet amazingly plotted book.

Cilene Tanaka is a writer and copywriter specialised in Literature and Theatre. She suggests you check her blog while she prepares a more professional website just for you.