Friday, September 23, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian by Han Kang took home the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Though a relatively short book at less then 200 pages, it has captivated readers and critics and has to been said to be a truly unique and extraordinary reading experience. It often happens that critically acclaimed books aren't very popular with your everyday reader. So I decided to read The Vegetarian for myself, as the premise does interest me and I was curious to see what got the critics so excited.

The Situation: Yeong-hye is a young wife in South Korea. She lives a fairly ordinary life with nothing particularly exciting going on. Even her husband describes her as "completely unremarkable in every way," though she may have a few small oddities. So together they live an unremarkable existence. But when Yeong-hye has a terrifying nightmare, one which leads her to the decision to become a vegetarian, the little things that only made her slightly strange soon become big problems. It isn't just that Yeong-hye will no longer eat meat, but soon she can barely even look at it, smell it, or watch other people eat it. And while it is certainly possible to eat a healthy amount and maintain a healthy weight without consuming meat, Yeong-hye instead begins to waste away, and eventually she won't eat anything at all.

The Problem: Normally, not eating meat would not be such a big deal; people become vegetarians all of the time. But Yeong-hye's entire family simply cannot understand the change, all being big meat eaters themselves. Her sister and brother are confused, as are their spouses, and her parents simply won't stand for it. After a particularly awful confrontation that leads to a suicide attempt, it becomes clear that eating meat really isn't the issue for Yeong-hye, but no one has any idea what is actually going on with her, and what is to be done about it. And while the decision should be about how to best care for Yeong-hye, for some family members it begins to be about whether they will be able to stand by her and support her as she goes through whatever it is that is causing her to eat so little and waste away before their eyes. It will be her sister, In-hye, who will take on most of the caregiving, but it will cause her to question her own existence and the decisions she has made for her life.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a story of fiction originally written and published in Korean in 2007, and then translated and published in English earlier this year. As I had already mentioned, it has won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and that is what initially brought it to my attention. Yeong-hye's initial decision to stop eating meat comes after a particularly gruesome dream that makes the act of consuming meat completely repulsive to her. While this will become one of the more mundane decisions she will make throughout the novel, it is still one that is big enough to completely shake her entire family. Broken up into three parts, the novel moves on with not eating meat as a central issue that is always returned back to, but Yeong-hye does other things that are much more strange, shocking, and scary for those that love her and care about her well-being. The book is first told in first-person by her husband; then in third-person from the perspective of her brother-in-law; and then again in third-person, but from the perspective of her older sister. Even when Yeong-hye's only issue seems to be with eating meat, it is clear that something much deeper, more profound, is going on with her. However, she won't communicate, and some of the people around her refuse to even try to understand, and quickly lose patience. While some ultimately dismiss her, others make her issues all about them, and still others take advantage of the situation for their own benefit.

My Verdict: This is one where I am pretty sure there are things that happened or were said that went completely over my head, but I enjoyed it anyway and can see what got critics so excited. Reading the novel is certainly a different experience from the kind of stuff I usually read, one I am glad to have had. And while the three different parts of the book are all told from different viewpoints, I can't say that there was one that was weaker than the others, or that there was one that was stronger and more preferable to me. Sure, two of the characters are more annoying or more frustrating than the other one, but the writing remained strong in all three and they all contributed to the overall success of the novel. While not ever being too gruesome or explicit, the book still manages to be a little scary and incredibly sad, but not so much that it is overwhelming and may make a reader want to put the book down. Kang effectively displays the experience of watching someone spiral downward, and the feeling of helplessness that comes with knowing there really isn't anything you can do.

Favorite Moment: Whenever Yeong-hye manages to laugh, since it is rare for her to even smile.

Favorite Character: Yeong-hye's sister, In-hye, is easily the most likeable and relateable. She is the only one who really continues to care for her sister and stick by her.

Recommended Reading: I recommend  either The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Both novels include female characters who, on the surface, are distant, difficult to read, and ultimately misunderstood. Also, Shelter by Jung Yun is also about a Korean family dealing with their history of abuse.  

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