Book review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you might have noticed that I initially started reading Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for “a book in translation,” one of my last reading challenge prompts for 2017.  I’m sure that the book is wonderful and I know that a lot of people have enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the right book for me at this current point in my life, so I set it aside and moved on to a different book in translation, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.

The Vegetarian is one of those polarizing books.  It has an average of 3.58 stars on Goodreads, with almost as many 3-, 2-, and 1-star ratings as 4- and 5-star rating.  Read some reviews, and you’ll notice that almost everybody falls into one of three categories.  They either a) absolutely loved it and thought it was brilliant, b) absolutely hated it and thought it was repulsive, or c) had literally no idea what was going on and rated it somewhere in the middle.  To be honest, I fall into Category C.

In this book, Yeong-hye has always behaved just as society expects.  She’s a picture-perfect wife, keeping a perfect house, cooking classic Korean dishes, and even earning a little money of her own.  One night, Yeong-hye has a dream.  There’s so much death in the world, so much blood on her hands, that she can no longer bring herself to eat meat.  In some countries, this wouldn’t be a problem.  In South Korea, where Yeong-hye lives, her refusal to eat meat is seen as a problem to be solved at best and a mental disorder at worst.

The Vegetarian made me uncomfortable.  I mean, it’s supposed to.  It’s not some cheerful little book that you read to de-stress after a long day.  It’s filled with troubling imagery and scenes in which people show the worst parts of their personalities.  This is the 130th book I’ve read in 2017 and it’s the first to give me a legitimate nightmare.  I am, to be perfectly honest, very happy that the book is only 188 pages.  I just wanted it to be done.

I’ll come right out and say that I did not understand the deeper meaning of most of the book.  I know that it’s an allegory, but that did little to clear things up for me.  The ending?  Went right over my head.  This is a well-written book that, to me, seems more suited to discussion in a college literature class than to pleasure reading.  I’m not surprised that it’s been nominated for several awards or that it won the International Man Booker Prize.

I wish that I’d enjoyed this book more.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

#mmdreading: a book in translation