Reed Books: The Vegetarian

Jess Reed, Editor

The Vegetarian by Han Kang is one of the rare books originally not published in English that became a Western phenomenon when translated, and for good reason. The novel is split into three sections, each told from a different perspective but following the same narrative, centered around Yeong-Hye, a housewife who converts to vegetarianism.

The brilliance of this novel comes down to its ability to pace the reveal of information. It’s a psychological horror but only clocks in at 188 pages. Suspense is only used when necessary, and often goes unresolved. We never fully understand why Yeong-Hye goes vegetarian, beyond her gory dreams; nor do we fully understand her brother-in-law’s obsession with floral visuals in eroticism. As Kang does such a good job of explaining: that’s the point of the story. No one will ever be fully able to understand the mental workings of another person. The dissatisfaction is intentional.

Still, I had a hard time with the stakes, or lack thereof, of the novel. I knew in theory why the characters acted the way they did, but I found a lot of their actions not believable and poorly explained. I suppose this is par for the course in a very short suspense novel, but why should  I care about a character that is completely unpredictable and impersonal? The lack of direct dialogue made the plot very distant; while this added to the surrealist feel, it lowered the emotional stakes put in by the readers.

Similarly, and especially towards the end of the book, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, which it never did. The most impactful and disturbing scenes happen in the first or second parts, while the third is left mainly exposition to cover. It’s still a good book, but for something hailed as being “disturbing” and “freaky”, there was a lack of actually terrifying material.

Overall, I think the book is worth reading because of its conciseness and well-written suspense; however, its low emotional and mental impact leave something to be desired.