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The Vegetarian by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

A South Korean woman’s decision to become a vegetarian has surprising and memorable consequences.

vegetarian

Yeong-hye was an ordinary woman–a trait her husband appreciated–until she made the shocking decision to become a vegetarian. In South Korea, this is unusual and socially scandalous; her family reacts by railing and trying to force her to eat meat. “I had a dream,” is all she says in explanation. Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian recounts Yeong-hye’s choice and its consequences.

Three sections tell the story from different perspectives: Yeong-hye’s disgusted and frustrated husband; her brother-in-law, a video artist whose work and every thought become fixated on Yeong-hye and her “vegetal” nature; and finally, her older sister, in the late stages of the extreme situation brought about by a seemingly simple decision. Their different relationships to the protagonist reveal more of her personality, but they cannot understand her. Vegetarianism is only one stage in Yeong-hye’s extreme plan for metamorphosis, as it turns out. As her story unfolds, this single decision brings increasing disgrace, violence and subversion, and her limited control over her own life diminishes.

This is a dreamy story with depth and mystery, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith with nuance and a tone of growing wonderment. Yeong-hye is a confounding and almost mystical character, never seen through her own point of view. In the end, The Vegetarian asks questions about mental illness and the significance of personal choice. Yeong-hye’s story is disquieting, thought-provoking and precisely formed.


This review originally ran in the February 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 trees.

2 Responses

  1. […] this year, I reviewed Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, an odd and engrossing novel. And now I’m holding her next English-language release, Human […]

  2. […] Acts is the second novel by Han Kang (The Vegetarian) to be translated into English. An introduction by translator Deborah Smith provides valuable […]

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