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A Modern South Korean Thriller: a review of Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”

Author, Han Kang

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I bought this book in Helsinki last weekend. It might seem strange to go to Finland and buy a South Korean novel, but I had been looking for this book with this particular cover art for quite some time. When I found it in the Academic Bookstore located in downtown Helsinki, I bought it straight away.

The novel has polarised reviews. It seems that people either struggle to make it past the first twenty pages, or they are completely spell-bound by the book. I absolutely enjoyed every minute I had with Kang’s novel, but I can understand why some people may not be so excited. To put it bluntly, the novel is violent and traumatic. It follows mental illness, suicide, problematic family relationships, questionable sex (rape) scenes, animal torture, domestic violence, and it goes right down to the very core of our human psyche. If you are sensitive to these themes, or are not expecting them from the somewhat ‘harmless’ title, then the content could be rather confronting.

Book cover of The Vegetarian. A white bird wing on a red leaf pattern.

Han Kang has had a successful career in writing and academia. She is the daughter of novelist Han Seung-won, which must in some way, genetically or otherwise, must have influenced her writing skills. She has had a successful career writing novels and short stories as well as teaching creative writing in Seoul. An interesting fact which I don’t know the veracity of (because I found it on the Interwebs), is that The Vegetarian was handwritten due to a wrist injury that Kang had sustained. I myself wonder about the creative process and if something is written by hand or typed into a computer could change the flow or feel of the work.

The novel has been translated by Deborah Smith and she has done an extremely good job. The only thing that annoyed me was that the phrase “belly pork” was used for what I think should have been “pork belly”. However, my Korean is limited to a few greetings that I learned from my 48 hours in Seoul, so I really can’t say what the better translation should be.

For me, Kang’s novel is about two sisters In-hye (the older sister) and Yeong-hye (the little sister) and their struggle to find meaning and more importantly their struggle for reason. Whilst the two sisters are not twins, they are very similar in appearance. Yeong-hye from the start of the novel is tormented by violent dreams and it is because of these dreams she decides to become a vegetarian. However, her vegetarianism does not stop the dreams she is tormented by, nor does it win her favour with her family, particularly her traditional village parents. From the outset of the novel, you think that Yeong-hye is the mad one. Doctor’s later in the novel describe her as schizophrenic. However, by the end of the novel I began to wonder if Yeong-hye was really the mentally ill one. In-hye, her sister, suffers from anxiety, depression, and she even strongly contemplates suicide. However, she manages to escape the clutches of the psych-wards. In-hye often looks upon her sister with envy as Yeong-hye has shirked all fears of social conformity and normalcy for her own preferred truth and reality. The lines of sane and insane are blurred and I was left wondering not only about the answers to this riddle, but also about the questions they provoked in me.

At 183 pages, Han Kang’s novel packs a punch for its slim size. It is terrifying, intriguing, brutal, and beautiful. I loved Kang’s novel so much that I have also set out to read her latest novel translated in English, Human Acts.

Sometimes novels in translation can be a bit off-putting for readers because of the fears of a bad translation or that the content will just not suit a different language audience. If you are wanting explore contemporary South Korean authors, then I can say with certainty that the combined efforts of Han Kang and Deborah Smith will not leave you wanting.

Have you read The Vegetarian? What did you think? What Literature in Translation are you reading? As always, remember to share the reading love.

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  1. Pingback: Where is the body, where is the soul?: A review of Han Kang’s “Human Acts” | bound2books