Today I’d like to tell you about a short novel that I literally devoured during my holiday in Prague: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It was the first South-Korean novel I’ve read and this was a very interesting experience, indeed.
This very short novel recounts the story of Yeong-hye, a young housewife who suddenly decides to become a vegetarian. This decision upsets her family and her husband, who try by all means to make her come to her senses. It is hard to tell you more about the plot without spoiling the novel and what makes it so fascinating, so I am going to stop here for the plot.
The novel is divided into three parts, each being told from a different point of view. The first part, “The Vegetarian”, is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr Cheong. The second part, “Mongolian Mark”, is told from an omniscient point of view but focuses a lot on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s (Yeong-hye’s sister’s husband) thoughts. Finally, “Flaming Trees” has also got an omniscient point of view but with a clear focus on In-hye’s – Yeong-hye’s sister – thoughts.
This construction is very interesting because each partallows the plot to develop in a whole new direction. As the plot shapes up, the points of view also shift from the remotest one (Yeong-hye’s husband, who obviously doesn’t know his wife at all) to the sharpest and closest one (Yeong-hye’s sister, who really empathizes with her).
Although this novel gives us some very good twists, it has more of a psychological plot than an action-driven plot. Yeong-hye’s psychological portrait develops throughout the novel in a really complex way and is what matters the most. In this regard, the novel clearly strays from what I was expecting. In addition, all the new developments the first part led me to predict were countered by the next parts. This novel surprised me, that’s the least we can say. When I closed it, I didn’t know what to think about it and felt quite disoriented. Reading this novel is a proper experience! Not only was I surprised by the direction the plot was taking, but I was also quite troubled by the crude aspect of the novel in general: sex, violence and graphic details were a big part of it.
Finally, I also really liked most of the themes underlying this novel, which is taking place in a very conservative and patriarchal society. This novel is clearly about female oppression and misogyny, and it is also about the capacity of making one’s own choices. I wish these themes had been a bit more developed, though. Actually, I think I wish the novel were longer. Even though I really liked it, I was left a little bit unsatisfied by the end, which I nevertheless found very powerful. Maybe it’s because I did not expect such an ending, or maybe it’s just because the novel was simply too short and “simple” in a way – for my taste at least. That being said, I enjoyed this novel a lot. It constituted a surprising and refreshing reading. It is definitely an UFO in the contemporary novel’s scene and, as such, worthwhile reading!
Funny fact, The Vegetarian has been adapted for the cinema. The South-Korean movie Vegetarian is from 2009 and has been nominated at the Sundance Festival 2010, in the “World Cinema – Dramatic” category. I had never heard about this movie – I actually doubt it reached a big audience – but I really feel like watching it now, in order to be able to compare with the book. However, if you haven’t read the book nor seen the movie, please read the book first – obviously!
If you have any South-Korean novel to recommend, please let me know in the comments 🙂
The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Published by Portobello Books (2015)