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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Vegetarian

Han Kang

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To purchase The Vegetarian

Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 118 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Vegetarian - US
The Vegetarian - UK
The Vegetarian - Canada
The Vegetarian - India
La végétarienne - France
Die Vegetarierin - Deutschland
La vegetariana - Italia
La vegetariana - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done, with some exceptional moments

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 4/4/2015 Mireille Juchau
Entertainment Weekly A 11/2/2016 Leah Greenblatt
The Guardian A 24/1/2015 Daniel Hahn
The Independent A 15/1/2015 Arifa Akbar
Independent on Sunday . 10/1/2015 Julia Pascal
Irish Times . 15/3/2015 Eileen Battersby
London Rev. of Books . 5/4/2018 Adam Mars-Jones
New Statesman . 26/2/2015 Joanna Walsh
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/2/2016 Porochista Khakpour
San Francisco Chronicle . 3/3/2016 G. Leon Miller
Sydney Morning Herald . 28/2/2015 Kerryn Goldsworthy
TLS . 25/2/2015 Peter Brown
The Washington Post . 20/1/2016 Lisa Zeidner
World Lit. Today . 5-8/2016 C.Lutz Clemens

  Review Consensus:

  All very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is the first of Kang’s several novels to appear in English and it has been skilfully translated by Deborah Smith. Kang writes in a coolly unsentimental style, and achieves a delicate balance of restraint and passion in a story pulsing with desire, betrayal and destruction." - Mireille Juchau, The Australian

  • "Kang viscerally explores the limits of what a human brain and body can endure, and the strange beauty that can be found in even the most extreme forms of renunciation." - Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Across the three parts, we are pressed up against a society’s most inflexible structures -- expectations of behaviour, the workings of institutions -- and we watch them fail one by one. The novel repeatedly shows the frictions between huge passion and chilling detachment, between desires that are fed and those that are denied. With such violence in these characters’ internal worlds, and such a maddening external impassiveness, those inner passions are bound to break out somehow, and it won’t be pretty. (...) (A) bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet. It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions." - Daniel Hahn, The Guardian

  • "Her veganism is not a trendy lifestyle choice as it might be in the West, but a deeply subversive act: a passive resistance that threatens to open up an inner abyss and that leads to a life-threatening eating disorder (.....) This is an odd and enthralling novel; its story filled with nihilism but lyricism too, its writing understated even in its most fevered, violent moments." - Arifa Akbar, The Independent

  • "This short novel is one of the most startling I have read. (...) The writing challenges a strict value system that demands devotion to the family, conformism and the denial of erotic freedom. (...) One of the work’s themes is the stripping down of the human body to the bone and the language reflects this sparseness." - Julia Pascal, Independent on Sunday

  • "The Vegetarian is more than a cautionary tale about the brutal treatment of women: it is a meditation on suffering and grief. It is about escape and how a dreamer takes flight. Most of all, it is about the emptiness and rage of discovering there is nothing to be done when all hope and comfort fails. For all the graphic, often choreographed description, Han Kang has mastered eloquent restraint in a work of savage beauty and unnerving physicality." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Elegantly translated into bone-spare English by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian is a book about the failures of language and the mysteries of the physical. Yet its message should not undermine Han’s achievement as a writer. Like its anti-protagonist, The Vegetarian whispers so clearly, it can be heard across the room, insistently and with devastating, quiet violence." - Joanna Walsh, New Statesman

  • "(T)here is no end to the horrors that rattle in and out of this ferocious, magnificently death-affirming novel. (...) Han’s glorious treatments of agency, personal choice, submission and subversion find form in the parable." - Porochista Khakpour, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Vegetarian is an existential nightmare, as evocative a portrayal of the irrational as I’ve come across in some time." - Gregory Leon Miller, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This book is skilfully imagined and written, but it's an ordeal as well as a pleasure to read." - Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Throughout this strange and ethereal fable, rendered stranger still by the cool precision of the prose (translated by Deborah Smith), we only rarely hear Yeong-hye’s own voice. She is an absent centre, a ghostly figure whom we glimpse mainly in the effect she has on those around her. (...) In the face of reactions that range from confusion to outrage, Yeong-hye’s quiet declaration of autonomy over her body takes on a defiant, political aspect." - Peter Brown, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Kafkaesque quality depends on delivering the surreal in a calm, almost deadpan way (.....) Kang presents her heroine’s metamorphosis crisply and dispassionately, although there are lapses into mood-shattering melodrama (.....) But for the most part, what makes “The Vegetarian” appealing is the controlled voice." - Lisa Zeidner, The Washington Post

  • "The individual remains incomprehensible in this stunning novel. Kang’s structure of three stand-alone novellas strung together to tell one larger story illustrates the loneliness of the individual who is forced to try to connect with others." - Colleen Lutz Clemens, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Yeong-he is the pivotal character in each of the three parts of The Vegetarian, but each is focused on another character: her husband in the first, her brother-in-law in the second, and her sister in the last. The novel begins with Yeong-he having a breakdown of sorts, emptying the refrigerator of meat (a lot of meat) and becoming a vegetarian. In a culture where it is highly uncommon to find anyone who doesn't eat meat -- "But surely it isn't possible to live without eating meat ?" is one of the reactions Yeong-he gets -- her choice, calling into question the most basic nourishment, undermines the very fabric of a close-knit society. Her husband sees it as such, too:

If it had all been just another instance of a woman giving up meat in order to lose weight then there would have been no need to worry, but I was convinced that there was more going on here than a simple case of vegetarianism.
       Yeong-he was exactly the sort of unexceptional woman her husband was happy to settle on: always "inclined toward the middle course of life", he never strives for something more or better, and Yeong-he -- "the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world" -- is the ideal partner. Of course, he doesn't want an actual partner: Yeong-he serves a purpose, doing what is expected of her in the role of 'wife' but not intruding on his life. Sometimes he wishes she would complain and yell like other wives, but on the whole he's pretty satisfied with the docile, undemanding creature he keeps at home. He takes no interest in her interior life -- noting that she likes to read but showing no interest in what she reads. Yeong-he works at home, doing the words in the speech bubbles of manhwa-comics.
       Practically the only complaint he has with Yeong-he is her reluctance to wear a bra, a small irritating sign of rebellion and her not falling in line with societal norms (arbitrary though this one too is). Of course, once she goes vegetarian, that really disrupts his dreams of enjoying a: "carefully ordered existence".
       Annoyed by Yeong-he's new lifestyle (and at not finding meat on the table when he comes home to eat), he can nevertheless put up with it in their closed domestic sphere. Having never expected much from his marriage, he thinks he can adapt:
I thought I could get by perfectly well just thinking of her as a stranger, or no, as a sister, or even a maid, someone who puts food on the table and keeps the house in good order.
       But her choice is perceived as anti-social, and in public she poses more of a problem. Dinner with his boss goes poorly; dinner with her family much worse, as Yeong-he's domineering father wants to forcefully put an end to what he sees as his uppity daughter's absurd choice. It ends in a mess, Yeong-he first hospitalized and then institutionalized; her husband has enough and cuts his losses. As he tells her:
Stop eating meat, and the world will devour you whole.
       This first section is narrated in the first person by the husband. The second, set some two years later, is told in the third-person, and centers on Yeong-he's brother-in-law -- a witness to the terrible family-dinner, but otherwise until then an entirely incidental figure. Meanwhile, we learn only that Yeong-he's husband has rid himself of her; she's no longer his concern and he no longer figures in her life.
       Her brother-in-law is a struggling video artist. Yeong-he's sister, his wife In-hye, has successfully built up a business, and they have a child together, and he is able to live fairly comfortably, doing more or less what he wants. (This is a society where the wife in such circumstances: "is even grateful that he let her take on so much responsibility, running a business as well as a household, without so much as a word of a complaint" .....) Nevertheless, he's plagued by a sense of dissatisfaction. He's on on a quest of sorts: he has a vision, and wants to realize it, but he's struggling with it, and hasn't found what he's looking for. Now, suddenly, Yeong-he is the key.
       With Yeong-he now living on her own, after a period of being institutionalized, In-hye is the one family member who tries to help her sister out (the others have also washed their hands of her). A casual mention of the 'Mongolian mark' that Yeong-he had, and that long did not fade, inspires the would-be artist. (He also connects it to her vegetarianism, images he can't disentangle.) Obsessed, he is ultimately able to realize it -- at a terrible cost to him and his family.
       Yeong-he's body has become one: "from which all superfluity had gradually been whittled away"; it is, in essence, all essence. Her Mongolian mark, meanwhile -- a vestige, still lingering -- is: "more vegetal than sexual". Indeed, everything about Yeong-he suggests a primal urge to get back-to-nature -- and, significantly, all flora (rather than fauna). So too when her brother-in-law realizes his creative vision the transformation is into a plant- rather than animal-self.
       The final section centers on In-hye, still trying to help her sister. Institutionalized again, Yeong-he has forsaken not just meat but all food; in her final self-destructive state, now fully anorexic, she claims:
I don't need to eat, not now. I can live without it. All I need is sunlight.
       Yeong-he's vegetarianism is not a conscious choice but an obsession (when she tries to explain it, she says it came to her in a dream); if it is rebellion, it is one she has little control over. She has suffered at the hands of her father -- and the dinner-scene shows what he is capable of -- and her husband's let-it-be attitude to everything clearly did not provide the support she needed. Her brother-in-law's creative take seems more in tune with her needs, yet turns out to be a damging indulgence: if Yeong-he arguably finds her true self here, it also leaves her without a place in any functioning society: at the end, even the mental institution doesn't feel able to deal with her.
       The Vegetarian is an often remarkable novel, with striking images and scenes, in an impressive range of controlled writing. These portraits -- three personal takes, each largely in relation to Yeong-he, and the murkier yet dominant presence of Yeong-he throughout -- are very well done. So is the sense of a rigidly functional society and its vulnerability to a variety of cracks. It is the reliance on mental illness that is a bit disappointing -- a device so common (and so tired) that it feels like far too easy an excuse, explanation, and fall-back. Han handles it reasonably well, but relying on it to such an extent here still limits what the story can be.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 January 2016

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The Vegetarian: Reviews: Han Kang: Other books by Han Kang under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Korean author Han Kang (한강) was born in 1970.

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