For Pity Sake Publishing

‘The Vegetarian’ – Book Review

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. This is what initially drew me to the book, as I had yearned to expand my repertoire, and read books written by foreign authors, but many of the translations I have seen have been hopeless and difficult. The Vegetarian is renowned for its translation into English, knowing this, I bought a copy. I read the first page out of curiosity – I was actually in the middle of another book when this one arrived – because I wanted to see what the language was like. But before I knew it, I was utterly hooked. It only took me a day and a half to burn through the pages and come out the other end with a dazed, disturbed, euphoric feeling; thinking to myself what an accomplishment this novel and the translation is.

Separated into three parts, the first follows Yeong-hye and her husband, who lead structured, mundane lives. Set in South Korea where the patriarchy is still very much intact, the gender roles are apparent; he spends all day at the office and she cooks and cleans. Everything is as it should be in their routine life, that is until Yeong-hye has a nightmare filled with blood and the cruelty of mankind, yanking her out of the realm of normalcy and into a separate reality, one where she decides to become a vegetarian.

As a vegetarian myself, I have to say, this book had particular resonance with me because of the response from Yeong-hye’s peers and family. She is seen as crazy by adopting a meatless diet. She is ridiculed, bullied, and at one stage force-fed meat by her father. I can’t imagine people having that reaction to my diet. Reading this left me feeling uncomfortable to say the least, and yet, like every good novel, I read on at a rapid pace.

In a bid not to give too much away, I will not delve into the harrowing, unexplainable, strangely beautiful events that unfold after this change in an average woman’s diet. But I will say that Yeong-hye descends into a place that I’m sure we’ve all had a fear of slipping in to – the place where reality and fantasy merge and become inseparable, altering our lives in unthinkable ways.

Told from three different perspectives, this novel explores how obsessions can take you to the farthest reaches of your mind and compel you to act in ways you once couldn’t believe possible. What I took away from this book most of all was the ways in which the brutality of this world takes its toll on those who inhabit it.

You can purchase a copy of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian from Booktopia.

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