Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Vegetarian by Han Kang Review


Set in South Korea, a woman called Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat – my, the scandal! Her family is outraged and things get progressively stranger and more disturbing for poor Yeong-hye from there.

If we look at the three parts that comprise Han Kang’s The Vegetarian as a three course meal (purely because food is how all of this begins), I’d say I loved the starter, didn’t mind the entrĂ©e and was left disappointed with the dessert; all in all, a middling meal! 

The first part is compelling in the characters’ almost Kafka-esque reaction to Yeong-hye giving up meat. I don’t know anything about South Korean culture but would going vegetarian really cause this much furore – surely it’s not that rare? It felt overblown and odd in this day and age so I was curious to see where it was going. Maybe it was meant to be literal and I’d learn that South Korean culture really is that intolerant or maybe her family is full of lunatics and this is a psychological horror story? Maybe it was intentionally exaggerated and Kang would take the metaphor further and develop it into a commentary on individuality in the modern era, oppressive societal standards or something appropriately intellectual like that - y’know, to justify the somewhat excessive critical acclaim?

Unfortunately the story never lives up to its initial promise. Besides Yeong-hye’s artiste brother-in-law’s obsession with incorporating her into his wanky photo-sex art, the narrative devolves into dull people in unhappy marriages going through the motions and an unremarkable and flat portrait of a mentally-ill woman. What was the point of the novel – was that it? How underwhelming.

The energy that initially propelled the book peters out as it goes on, gradually losing focus and finishing weakly in a forgettable non-finale – the book just stops rather than ends. Whether it’s a case of Kang deciding that to be considered “serious art” she needed to be more abstract and less accessible or chose to obfuscate a lack of substance with style, it’s unimpressive and unsatisfying stuff.

That said, The Vegetarian is well-written, particularly in how Kang makes each of the three narrators’ voices distinct, and original in concept. While I definitely enjoyed the first half far more than the second, I never really disliked any part of it though I do feel that it’s overrated, like most award-winning novels.

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