Books on GIF #31 — 'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang


Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.

This Sunday's book is 'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang.

The Vegetarian

This Man Booker International Prize winner gets off to an intense start, which is just what I enjoy, so when I started this book I was like:

I started recommending it left and right before I even finished the first chapter. Well, to those people I regret to say I jumped the gun. As the book progressed, I was like:

And then by the end, I was frustrated and annoyed.

'The Vegetarian' has an interesting premise. A woman, Yeong-hye, decides one day out of the blue to become a vegetarian, and that decision sets off a chain reaction through her husband, father, sister and brother-in-law that leads to bizarre and dark reactions of violence, sex and craziness. Really. Weird. Crazy.

Yeong-hye is a very troubled woman regardless of her diet. But the reader never really learns why. When characters ask her what's wrong, she gives some confused answer about dreams of blood and skulls, but that's not really an explanation.

Part of the problem here was how the book is structured. It's divided into three long chapters, each narrated by a different character: first the husband, then the brother-in-law and finally the sister. While the chapters all deal with various stages of Yeong-hye's decent into madness, each character is discarded at the end of the chapter, so you never connect to any of them. And, each narrator is at a certain remove from her and wrapped up in their own thoughts about her, so even though she's the center of the book, it felt like I needed binoculars to see Yeong-hye.

For example, why does Yeong-hye want to have flowers painted on her body? Why does she spend hours doing headstands in an effort to become a tree? Donna read to me an excerpt of a review of 'The Vegetarian' from Vanity Fair that said the story was a critique of society's views of women's bodies, and that Yeong-hye was retreating into herself as a reaction to that. I didn't gather that from the headstands. Maybe I was missing something, maybe I was supposed to make a leap of understanding to grasp a greater point the author was making. Or maybe there wasn't one, and the Vanity Fair writer was simply grafting her own views onto Yeong-hye. We'll never know, because Yeong-hye isn't telling us. She barely speaks!

So in the end, despite starting with a bang, there's no real payoff. You never learn why Yeong-hye had a breakdown, or what vegetarianism had to do with it, or what caused her to be vegetarian in the first place. The book is certainly dramatic and has memorable and very dark scenes. But it just ... ends. And you're left wondering, what was that all about?

Skip it.

My Rating:

'The Vegetarian' (Ch'aesikjuuija) by Han Kang was originally published in 2007 by Changbi Publishers. It was translated from Korean by Deborah Smith and published by Hogarth in 2015. 188 pages.

What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'The Days of Abandonment' by Elena Ferrante, 'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith and 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara.

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Thanks for reading!*


* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!