The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Translated by Deborah Smith
Pages: 192 (Hardcover)
Published: by Hogarth February 2nd 2016 (first published October 30th 2007)
Overall Rating: 4/5
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books, but that does not have a sway in my reviews. I am a human being with thoughts of her own, and I am not obligated to automatically give this book five stars.
On Amazon and many other review sites, this novella received three and a half stars out of five. This was shocking because I thought this book was well written in terms of language, imagery, craft, and content. From the reviews, many people disputed the changing of points of view, the language, and the pacing. As a reader, the changing of point of views did not bother me because it was necessary to understand the deterioration of Yeong-Hye’s mind. The first point of view is written from a shallow mind that assesses mental illness as “strange” and “unknowable.” The second point of view romanticizes mental illness, while the last point of view strives to understand and empathize with the struggles of mental illness. The idea of breaking this novella into three parts works because it shows the different societal views of an invisible illness.
In terms of language, I would like to note that this book was translated from Korean to English. Because of it being a translated work, it’s bound to read differently. I noticed the use of terms and phrases that aren’t typically used in contemporary English and as a reader, I had to remind myself that this was a translation and that these terms and phrases are probably used more often in Korean or the meaning of these words have been lost in translation. I wouldn’t judge this book because of the language. With any translated piece, there will be differences and stumbling blocks but as readers, we should keep in mind that difference in language should not keep us from reading a book.
The last point that most people seemed to focus on was the pacing. Maybe I’m just a fast reader, but I finished this book in less than two days. I can see that the pacing changes with each section, but the pacing mirrors the weight each character carries. The first section was fast and easy to read, but the narrator was shallow and his views on mental illness were narrow. The second section wasn’t necessarily a slow read, but it wasn’t as fast as the first section. This could be due to the commentary being told in this section. It romanticizes mental illness and it goes more in depth of the beauty of pain. The last section wasn’t necessarily a fast read, but that’s more so because the content was heavier and it focused on empathizing with mental illness and truly understanding how the mind works. It is easy to say that the pacing “was slow,” but the pacing truly mirrored the transitions between societal views that are focused in the novella.
What truly captured my attention was the cultural telling embedded. South Korea is well known for their views on body image, and it was interesting to see the differences between their culture and American culture. In America, body shaming is less acceptable and the idea of being true to yourself and loving yourself is a topic that is taught through media and everyday life. In the novella, it comments on the perspective that women should look a certain way. Women should always wear makeup, should always wear bras when in public, and should always be demure and submissive. These concepts contrast with most American ideals, so it is interesting to see how this book shows how breaking away from a society that shames the body can be both freeing and detrimental.
The Vegetarian is a beautiful novella that elicits the pain of living in a society that judges a person based off of looks and personality. This book was written well and I truly believe that it deserves more than three and a half stars. If anything, it deserves a full four stars. This story was so unsettling and it showed how cultures can clash and how societal views can be detrimental to those who struggle with mental illness. Do not be fooled by the low ratings on Amazon and read this book. It is truly worth the read.