Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian - Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)
The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

Sometimes I read books and wonder if maybe I’m not quite smart enough for them. The Vegetarian is a short but complex novel. It’s beautiful and brutal and I was left feeling like there was a lot more to it than what I was picking up.

The Vegetarian is divided into three parts – moving through time and each from the perspective of a different character but always revolving around our main character. The book begins with the seemingly innocuous decision of a young woman to stop eating meat. The first section is told from her husband’s perspective, where we learn how angry and frustrated this makes him and how her iron will and his frustration light a fuse for abuse. Some of what’s at play here is cultural – marital and family expectations, for example – though we’re certainly not expected to sympathize with the husband. Kang presents it with a flat non-emotional tone that makes it even more disturbing and we never get close enough to this young woman to fully understand her motivation.

The second section moves to the perspective of the brother-in-law and his growing obsession with this young woman. An unsuccessful artist, he sees in her an opportunity for his greatest masterpiece. But his desire to create art is twisted in his sexual desire. Here we are reminded that beautiful art can have twisted origins. Does that matter? Does that take away from having created something beautiful? Again, Kang tells the story without judgement. We hear it from the brother-in-law’s perspective and yet there is a measured distance that keeps the reader at arm’s length.

The final section is perhaps the most intimate as we move to the sister’s perspective. The surrealism of our main character’s illness only grows and (in my mind) becomes more confused, but her sister’s pain and confusion makes this section the most emotional.

I was left to wonder what was real, what was imagined, what was hallucinated, what was to be believed. Maybe I’m not smart enough for this book or maybe Kang wants her readers to finish this short novel with a myriad of questions.

Deborah Smith’s translation from Korean was truly excellent, in my mind. She maintains the formal lilt of the language while never feeling false or overdone. It’s exciting to see a new category for translations added to the Man Booker Prize and I think this one is well-deserving of that award.

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