“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

Book Review

Vegetarianism and I flirt probably 2 or 3 times a year. It is a flighty love-affair that always flames out because of my incurable infidelity with meat, particularly of the Japanese cuisine variety (sushi and chashu ramen, I can never leave you). Despite my personal plant-based failings, I remain interested in the vegetarian lifestyle and the often complicated reasons behind it.

I have spent a large chunk of time thinking about the moral quandaries surrounding the eating of meat: the morality of eating another sentient lifeform, the impact the meat industry has on the climate, the antibiotics that are pumped into so many of our meat products, among other issues. Each of these are common enough reasons supporting the idea of vegetarianism that even lifelong carnivores are aware of them.

It was these common issues I expected the protagonist to espouse and grapple with in “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang. I could not have started reading this book with more generic assumptions, and during the course of the novel these expectations were violently subverted.

“The Vegetarian” is set in contemporary South Korea, and revolves around Yeong-hye, a stay at home wife who mysteriously becomes a strict vegetarian. In fact vegan may be the more appropriate term since Yeong-hye avoids any animal byproducts and foods of any kind. Before her transformation into a vegetarian, her husband and relative view her as “completely unremarkable in any way,” which proves to be a devastatingly false bit of prophecy. Her family’s initial surprise at her dietary shift eventually grows into offense and disgust, culminating in a particular domestic scene of harrowing physical violence.

Kang’s novella is divided into 3 sections, each narrated in first-person by a different member of Yeong-hye’s family, but these sections are interspersed with dream-like monologues from Yeong-hye, providing insights into her choices and rationale behind her vegetarianism. And simple, familiar moral choices for eating only plants these are not; she grapples with complicated themes like isolation, human cruelty, domestic violence, and mental illness.

This is a unique novel and beautifully translated by Deborah Smith. Hints of magical realism can be felt within its pages, and Yeong-hye’s descent into mental illness is both surreal and visceral.