The Vegetarian by Han Kang
A devastating exploration of alienation and mental illness
 
The Vegetarian is a book that will stay with you long after you've turned the final page.

The story follows Yeong-hye who is a quiet and obedient South Korean wife. After experiencing disturbing and brutal dreams she renounces eating meat. Although this seems to be a simple premise on the surface, the story is an exploration of a woman's understanding of her body, a rejection of societal norms, and the affects of mental illness.

Told from three points of view, The Vegetarian follows the unraveling of Yeong-hye's marriage, health, and family. The first portion of the novel is told by her husband, a callous, conventional man, who rejects his wife's nonconformity and disobedience. After a few months of admittedly bizarre behavior, he abandons his wife without hesitation. No one questions his actions. Only hers. More so, he is framed as the victim by Yeong-hye's family.

The second chapter is told from her brother-in-law's perspective as he sexualizes her in a pornographic vision. He is yet another man who sees Yeong-hye as an object and pays little care to her mental state as he strips her naked, takes vaguely artistic photos of her, and has sex with her while they are both painted as flowers.

The final portion of the book is told from her sister's viewpoint. She is the only one who loves Yeong-hye and is most affected by her mental illness and decline. She is a single mother who works tirelessly to keep her storefront open. She is also the final person in Yeong-hye's life who continues to care as Yeong-hye's husband, father, mother, and brother all leave. 

The final chapters cover the horrific challenges that come with severe anorexia nervosa. Yeong-hye refuses to eat, wastes away, and has grand ideas of becoming a plant. It is during these final pages that the ramifications of Yeong-hye's disease can be truly understood. She will not eat and will die. Alone, her sister is forced to confront her own role in Yeong-hye's illness and account for the bizarre series of events that have created so much alienation amongst her family members.

The writing is as poetic as it is disturbing and echoes Kafka's The Metamorphosis in its exploration of alienation. There are also references to Melville's "Bartleby, the Scriveners" in its dissection of societal norms. This is a great novel to pick up for Murakami fans, readers looking for a short, rich novel, and those lucky enough to have someone around they can hug (needed but not required).

4 pawprints out of 5
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