There are certain topics that should not be brought up during family dinners. For many these include religion and family. Invariably the topic of one person not eating meat will be brought up when the others at the dinner table realize what’s happening. Vegetarianism can occur for a number of reasons, some of them being religion and moral values. Odds are that if someone is a vegetarian for religious reasons, their family will not question their choices. But if they choose to change their diet for other reasons, their family might not be as accepting. The Vegetarian, one of two English translations for Han Kang this year, visits this topic as it’s main character Yeong-hye swears off meat and animal products after a particularly vivid dream.
The Vegetarian begins with a dream of a face. Primary protagonist Yeong-hye suffers a rather vivid dream of a face or person, regardless of form the sequence is interspersed with blood and images of butchery. It’s this episode that causes her to swear off animal products and declare herself a vegetarian (or vegan depending on one’s interpretation). This, however does not sit well with her family, particularly her parents and husband. Told in three parts by three different narrators, The Vegetarian is Kang’s vision of not only life for a vegetarian in Korea, but a study of obsessions and how someone can even become obsessed with obsessions.
First, it should be noted that having the title as The Vegetarian is a bit of a misnomer. While the first third of the book is heavily plotted around this, the rest of the story quickly evolves into something much larger than just swearing off animal products from one’s diet. If taken with a grain of salt that the story is not just about a vegetarian or their diet, this story is very much enjoyable. The use of three different narrators not only elevates the narrative of the story, but also alleviates the reader from possibly tiring from one viewpoint. Kang’s writing and dialogue, while translated, maintains itself by being moving and engaging. The plot is not your typical A-B-C story and it does get a bit artsy here and there, but it’s wish to be more literary doesn’t detract from the fact that it really is a fantastic little novel.
Rating: 4 out of 5 – Readers should go in expecting an evolved story about a vegetarian. The element is present, but Kang is able to feature more important themes that make this novel much more than a piece of propaganda that it could get labeled as.