The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian by Han Kang


Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more 'plant-like' existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister's husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming - impossibly, ecstatically - a tree.


In the five years we'd been married this was the first time I'd had to go to work without her handing me my things and seeing me off.
"You're insane! You've completely lost it."

Well, what a strange and unique experience this has been. Honestly, I'm quite surprised by it. I'd definitely recommend reading it, though, I'm afraid I don't like it as much as other people are going to love it.

I didn't plan on reading this book, rather I spontaneously borrowed it from the library when I saw its stunning cover and faintly recalled having read/heard of the title somewhere. Naturally, I had no idea what to expect (furthermore, in accordance with my usual habits I didn't look up what this book was about and didn't even read any of the blurbs on its back). I was immediately compelled by the first sentence, which is a perfect introduction to the rather appalling first part.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I'd always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.

What a first sentence, isn't it? Anyways, when I say the first part of the story is appalling I specifically mean: the husband was appalling. Which is, I guess, the point. While the novel is set around Yeong-hye and her condition it rarely delves into her being, her feelings, or her as a person generally at all. She's more of a conduit for other people to project their own personality on. In the first act, the focus is mainly on her husband (who, who would have figured based on the statement above?, is quite a horrible person) but also on her father and the rest of the family a little bit. I thought this first part was the most powerful of the three acts, because it was able to create a consistent and uncanny atmosphere without really relying on violence (there is violence, sure, but it was already expected by that point because the atmosphere was so dense).

The second part I thought was the weakest. Moreover, I thought it was rather off-putting and, while the general storyline is theoretically very interesting, I had to push through without really liking any of it. However, you might as well ascribe that to the topic of the second part, which I found rather repulsive altogether and just wanted the inevitable outcome to be over with.

Luckily, the third act was strong again. The atmosphere wasn't as dense as in the first part but the topic discussed was the most interesting. In-hye is a very compelling perspective to read from as she struggles with her own problems without giving in to desperation and, somehow, fights on for herself, her child, and her sister. In the first two acts, it appeared to me that Yeong-hye was (if in a weird way) strong in rebelling against the power structures which chain her to the life she was leading but In-hye put that in perspective. I can't really explain why without spoiling anything but what I can say is: The third, and last, act is definitely the most confusing of them all. Especially the ending, by which point, however, a different atmosphere has settled in and is able to convey the feelings only vaguely grasped at by the narrator's words.

(Quick side-note: I guess the word "vegetarian" was used to describe her very unusual eating habits – aka. her starving herself – which is something only rarely encountered in South Korea and therefore people don't know a lot about but she's actually vegan or, bluntly, tree.)


A hard choice because I'm really not quite sure yet. I tethered around 3 stars, sometimes leaning towards 4 sometimes to 2.5 stars. But, considering I have to decide on something, I'm going to go with 3.5/5 stars, which seems like the fairest solution.


Name: The Vegetarian
Deutscher Titel: Die Vegetarierin
Original Title: 채식주의자
Author: Han Kang
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 183
Where?: Amazon (English Edition), Amazon (Deutsche Ausgabe)


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