Imagine you’re a working man in a stable marriage that you’re merely content with. You recognise that your wife isn’t your ideal woman in every way, but she cooks, cleans and gives you space. She’s the type of wife you settle on when you realise that you’re incapable of attracting the women you truly desire. Imagine if, one day out of the blue, your wife makes the decision to turn vegetarian and throws out all of the meat in the house. How would you react?

Depending on where you are in the world, that may not be such a big deal. Honourable husband’s also wouldn’t have the same mindset as this type of husband. But that’s where The Vegetarian shines. It’s a book that exposes the ignorance towards vegetarians in South Korea. Throughout the book, the main character Yeong-hye is seen through the eyes of those closest to her; including her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister. We never get to see things through her own eyes and that makes for an interesting story dynamic as we’re presented with unpopular beliefs regarding Yeong-hye’s sudden change of heart.

As a reader, you’ll feel like being a vegetarian is no big deal, but Yeong-hye’s family will look down on and degrade her to the point things get uncomfortable. Her own father physically violates her to force her to eat meat again. Soon, it becomes clear that Yeong-hye is suffering from deep mental health issues that could have perhaps stemmed from her treatment from those around her. Yeong-hye is eventually admitted into hospital for care, and the book becomes an interesting character study of a woman clearly going through internal struggle.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
– image from elenascrie

We see Yeong-hye be sexualised, and though it’s consensual, the terms in which she accepts it will make you feel deep conflicting emotions about whether she has been taken advantage of or not. The book became taxing on my emotions during the final third of the book, where Yeong-hye’s sister pleads with her to start eating again to maintain her health. Rarely does a book leave me feeling emotionally vulnerable, but The Vegetarian was one of those books.

The Vegetarian was written by South Korean author Han Kang, and translated by Deborah Smith. Reading the book left me with a strong desire to learn Korean so I could read through the original version to see if it’s just as beautifully written as Deborah Smith’s translation. It’s the type of book where every word feels strongly considered. No word on the page is ever wasted, and Deborah’s word choices are immaculate. It’s my strong belief that for a work like this to be translated so beautifully, the source material must have been just as spectacular if not better.

I remember having a conversation with someone about The Vegetarian last year. I told them I was interested in reading it and they told me that they were weary of it because of all the hype it had received. To anyone with similar thoughts, I wholeheartedly suggest that you forget about all the hype and read this book. Just because it’s something all readers should appreciate. I decided against using a rating system on this website, but if I did have one, The Vegetarian would score an easy 5/5 stars.

The Vegetarian book cover

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Featured image from Lily