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The Vegetarian Paperback – August 23, 2016
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“Surreal...[A] mesmerizing mix of sex and violence...vivid, chiseled...Like a cursed madwoman in classical myth, Yeong-hye seems both eerily prophetic and increasingly unhinged.” —Alexandra Alter, The New York Times
“Ferocious...[Han Kang] has been rightfully celebrated as a visionary in South Korea… Han’s glorious treatments of agency, personal choice, submission and subversion find form in the parable. There is something about short literary forms – this novel is under 200 pages – in which the allegorical and the violent gain special potency from their small packages... Ultimately, though, how could we not go back to Kafka? More than ‘The Metamorphosis,’ Kafka’s journals and ‘A Hunger Artist’ haunt this text.” —Porochista Khakpour, New York Times Book Review
“Astonishing...Kang viscerally explores the limits of what a human brain and body can endure, and the strange beauty that can be found in even the most extreme forms of renunciation.” —Entertainment Weekly
"Sometimes how a book or a film puzzles you—how it may mystify even its own creator—is the main point. The way it keeps slithering out of your grasp. The way it chats with you in the parlor even as it drags something nameless and heavy through the woods out back….That’s the spirit in which to approach The Vegetarian… The Vegetarian has an eerie universality that gets under your skin and stays put irrespective of nation or gender.”—Laura Miller, Slate.com
“This book is both terrifying and terrific.”—Lauren Groff
"The Vegetarian was slim and spiky and extremely disturbing, and I find myself thinking about it weeks after I finished." Jennifer Weiner, popsugar.com
“The Vegetarian is one of the best novels I’ve read in years. It’s incredible, daring, and stunningly moving. I loved it.”—Laura van den Berg
"A short novel of sexuality and madness that deserves its great success.”—Ian McEwan
“If it's true you are what you read, prepare to be sliced and severed, painted and slapped and fondled and broken to bits, left shocked and reeling on the other side of this stunning, dark star of a book.”—Amelia Gray
“It takes a gifted storyteller to get you feeling ill at ease in your own body. Yet Han Kang often set me squirming with her first novel in English, at once claustrophobic and transcendent… Yeong-hye’s compulsions feel more like a force of nature… A sea like that, rippling with unknowable shadow, looks all but impossible to navigate—but I’d let Han Kang take the helm any time.”—Chicago Tribune
“Provocative...shocking.”—The Washington Post
"[An] utterly deserving winner of this year's Man Booker International Prize...with haunting, almost hallucinatory beauty."—Entertainment Weekly, Best Books of 2016 so far
“This is a deceptive novel, its canvas much larger than the mild social satire that one initially imagines. Kang has bigger issues to raise… The matter of female autonomy assumes urgency and poignancy.”—The Boston Globe
"Compelling...[A] seamless union of the visceral and the surreal.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
"Indebted to Kafka, this story of a South Korean woman's radical transformation, which begins after she forsakes meat, will have you reading with your hand over your mouth in shock." —O, the Oprah Magazine
“If you love books that grab you by the throat and keep you wide-eyed and shocked throughout, you’ve got to pick up Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.”—EW.com
"A complex, terrifying look at how seemingly simple decisions can affect multiple lives...In a world where women’s bodies are constantly under scrutiny, the protagonist’s desire to disappear inside of herself feels scarily familiar."—VanityFair.com
"A sharply written allegory that extends far beyond its surreal premise to unexpected depths.”—The Millions
“Visceral and hypnotic.”—Michele Filgate
“An elegant tale, in three parts, of a woman whose sudden turn to veganism disrupts her family and exposes the worst human appetites and impulses… [a] stripped-down, thoughtful narrative… about human psychology and physiology.”—Huffington Post
"Adventurous readers will be blown away by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, in which a once-submissive Korean wife’s compulsion to stop eating meat spirals out of control. This moving story engages complicated questions about desire, guilt, obligation and madness.”—MORE Magazine
“This elegant-yet-twisted horror story is all about power and its relationship with identity. It's chilling in the best ways, so buckle in and turn down the lights.”—Elle.com
“The Vegetarian is the first—there will be more, let’s hope—of Han Kang’s novels to arrive in the United States…The style is realistic and psychological, and denies us the comfort that might be wrung from a fairy tale or a myth of metamorphosis. We all like to read about girls swapping their fish tails for legs or their unwrinkled arms for branches, but—at the risk of stating the obvious—a person cannot become a potted bit of green foodstuff. That Yeong-hye seems not to know this makes her dangerous, and doomed.”—Harper’s Magazine
“This haunting, original tale explores the eros, isolation and outer limits of a gripping metamorphosis that happens in plain sight… Han Kang has written a remarkable novel with universal themes about isolation, obsession, duty and desire.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Complex and strange...Han's prose moves swiftly, riveted on the scene unfolding in a way that makes this story compulsively readable...this is a book that demands you to ask important questions, and its vivid images will be hard to shake. This is a book that will stay with you."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Brutally yet beautifully explores the gap between one person’s expression and another’s reception.”—Harvard Crimson
"The Vegetarian is incredibly fresh and gripping, due in large part to the unforgettable narrative structure... Han Kang has created a multi-leveled, well-crafted story that does what all great stories do: immediately connects the unique situation within these pages to the often painful experience of living."—The Rumpus
“Disquieting, thought-provoking and precisely informed.” —Shelf Awareness
“A horror story in its depiction of the unknowability of others—of the sudden feeling that you've never actually known someone close to you….Its three-part structure is brilliant, gradually digging deeper and deeper into darker and darker places; the writing is spare and haunting; but perhaps most memorable is its crushing climax, a phantasmagoric yet emotionally true moment that's surely one of the year's most powerful. This is an ingenious, upsetting, and unforgettable novel.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"[A] spare, spectacular novel...Family dysfunction amid cultural suffocation is presented with elegant precision, transforming readers into complicit voyeurs. Fans of authors as diverse as Mary Karr and Haruki Murakami won't be able to turn away."—Library Journal (starred review)
“Korean writer Han Kang’s elegant yet unsettling prose conveys her protagonist’s brother-in-law’s obsessive, art-centered lust; her sister’s tepid, regret-riddled existence; and Yeong-hye’s vivid, disturbing dreams… Readers will want more of the author’s shocking portrayals of our innermost doubts, beliefs, and longings.”—Booklist
“[A] beautiful and disquieting new novel...concise and swift, its language often almost poetic...haunting.” —Bookpage
"The book insists on a reader’s attention, with an almost hypnotically serene atmosphere interrupted by surreal images and frighteningly recognizable moments of ordinary despair. Han writes convincingly of the disruptive power of longing and the choice to either embrace or deny it, using details that are nearly fantastical in their strangeness to cut to the heart of the very human experience of discovering that one is no longer content with life as it is. An unusual and mesmerizing novel, gracefully written and deeply disturbing."—Kirkus
"Searing...[Yeong-hye's] extreme efforts to separate herself from her animal appetites reveal the sanity and normality of those closest to her to be mere matchstick houses."—Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird
"Suffused with a sensibility that evokes the matter-of-fact surrealism of Franz Kafka, featuring a female protagonist as engagingly perverse as Melville’s Bartleby, Han Kang’s slender but robust novel addresses many vital matters—from the politics of gender to the presumptions of the male gaze, the conundrum of free will to the hegemony of meat—with a dark élan that vegetarians and carnivores alike will find hypnotic, erotic, disquieting, and wise.—James Morrow, author of Galápagos Regained
"A strange, painfully tender exploration of the brutality of desire indulged and the fatality of desire ignored, rendered all the more so by Deborah Smith's exquisite translation."—Eimear McBride, Baileys Women's Prize-winning author of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
"Visceral and terrifying, The Vegetarian is a startling reminder of the utter unknowability of another's mind. Nonetheless, reading it, you will feel it in your flesh: the desire for peace, a plea for safety, for escape from your own inevitable mortality. It is artfully plotted yet reads like a fever dream, sweeping and surreal. It will leave you aching."—Sarah Gerard, author of Binary Star
"Like a small seed, Han Kang’s startling and unforgettable debut goes to work quietly, but insistently. Her prose is so balanced, so elegant and assured, you might overlook the depths of this novel’s darkness—do so at your own peril."—Colin Winnette, author of Haints Stay and Coyote
"The Vegetarian is a story about metamorphosis, rage and the desire for another sort of life. It is written in cool, still, poetic but matter-of-fact short sentences, translated luminously by Deborah Smith, who is obviously a genius."—Deborah Levy, author of The Unloved and Swimming Home
"The Vegetarian is hypnotically strange, sad, beautiful and compelling. I liked it immensely."—Nathan Filer, 2013 Costa First Novel award-winning author of The Shock of the Fall
"A stunning and beautifully haunting novel. It seems in places as if the very words on the page are photosynthesising. I loved this graceful, vivid book."—Jess Richards, Costa First Novel Award shortlisted author of Snake Ropes
"Poetic and beguiling, and translated with tremendous elegance, The Vegetarian exhilarates and disturbs."—Chloe Aridjis, author of The Book of Clouds
“Dark dreams, simmering tensions, chilling violence…This South Korean novel is a feast…It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colors and disturbing questions…Sentence by sentence, The Vegetarian is an extraordinary experience… [It] will be hard to beat.”—The Guardian
"This is an odd and enthralling novel; its story filled with nihilism but lyricism too, its writing understated even in its most fevered, violent moments. It has a surreal and spellbinding quality, especially in its passage on nature and the physical landscape, so beautiful and so magnificently impervious to the human suffering around it."—Arifa Akbar, The Independent
“This short novel is one of the most startling I have read… Exciting and imaginative…The author reveals how nature, sex and art crash through this polite society…It is the women who are killed for daring to establish their own identity. The narrative makes it clear it is the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette which murders them…[A] disturbing book.”—Julia Pascal, The Independent
"Immediately absorbing...The different perspectives offered are so beautifully distinctive...Every word matters."—Sunday Herald
"Shocking...The writing throughout is precise and spare, with not a word wasted. There are no tricks. Han holds the reader in a vice grip...The Vegetarian quickly settles into a dark, menacing brilliance that is similar to the work of the gifted Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa in its devastating study of psychological pain...The Vegetarian is more than a cautionary tale about the brutal treatment of women: it is a meditation on suffering and grief. It is about escape and how a dreamer takes flight. Most of all, it is about the emptiness and rage of discovering there is nothing to be done when all hope and comfort fails....A work of savage beauty and unnerving physicality."—Irish Times
“The Vegetarian is a book about the failures of language and the mysteries of the physical. Yet its message should not undermine Han’s achievement as a writer. Like its anti-protagonist, The Vegetarian whispers so clearly, it can be heard across the room, insistently and with devastating, quiet violence.”—Joanna Walsh, The New Statesman
“[A] strange and ethereal fable, rendered stranger still by the cool precision of the prose… What is ultimately most troubling about Yeong-hye’s post-human fantasies is that they appear to be a reasonable alternative to the world of repression and denial in which everyone around her exists.”—Times Literary Supplement
"The Vegetarian is so strange and vivid it left me breathless upon finishing it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel as mouth-wateringly poetic, or as drenched in hypnotic oddities, taboos and scandal. It seems to have been plucked out of the ether, ready-made to take us all by surprise. Exciting and compelling"—Lee Rourke, New Humanist
"The Vegetarian combines human violence and the possibility of innocence...[A] frightening beauty of a novel." -British Council Literature
"Kang belongs to a generation of writers that aim to discover secret drives, ambitions, and miseries behind one's personal destiny...[The Vegetarian] deals with violence, sanity, cultural limits, and the value of the human body as the last refuge and private space." -Tiempo Argentino
"[A] bloodcurdlingly beautiful, sinister story."—Linda
"The almost perverse seduction of this book originates in the poetry of the images. They are violently erotic and rather nightmarish; the novel is like a room full of large flowers, where the musky odour takes you by the throat."—De groene Amsterdammer
"For the fans of Haruki Murakami."—Gazet van Antwerpen (starred review)
"Piercing... I was touched the most by the directness, the images, the poignant phrases and most of all the imagination with which it was written."—nrc Handelsblad
"A shocking, moving and thought-provoking novel."—Trouw
"One of the most impressive novels I have read recently... You need to read this book."—Arnon Grunberg in De Volkskrant
"The Vegetarian is exciting and original."—De Standaard der Letteren (starred review)
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Han Kang was born in 1970 in South Korea. In 1993 she made her literary debut as a poet, and was first published as novelist in 1994. A participant of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Han has won the Man Booker International Prize, the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today's Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literary Prize. She currently works as a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.
From the Hardcover edition.
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At a family gathering some time after she makes her decision, they try to force her to eat meat. Her brutal father slaps her twice and forces a piece of meat between her lips, but Yeong-hye manages to spit it out and then grabs a knife and slits her wrist. As her blood spurts out, the only one who comes to her aid is her brother-in-law, while her parents, her husband, sister, brother, and sister-in-law look on. What is wrong with these people? Well, a lot, apparently.
We learn about it all from three different sources: the odious husband, the brother-in-law, and, finally, the sister.
The husband's tale starts with his description of his impressions on meeting the woman who was to become his wife. To say his was underwhelmed would be an understatement. To be fair, his description of himself is just as unflattering. I laughed out loud at the husband's sardonic depictions of the two of them, but it was the only time in the book that I felt any inclination toward jocularity.
As his wife of five years makes her decision to become a vegetarian, all the husband can think about is how this affects him and what his employer and their acquaintances will think. He is totally self-absorbed.
The brother-in-law becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye after the incident at the family gathering. He is an artist. His medium is videos and he becomes consumed by the idea of featuring his sister-in-law's naked body in his videos. He wants to paint flowers on her body and film her. She agrees to this. His fixation then moves on to filming her having sex. He persuades a fellow artist to allow him to paint flowers on his body and to be Yeong-hye's partner, but when it comes to the point of actually engaging in sex, the partner backs out. The brother-in-law then takes over - which is what he wanted to do all along - and videotapes himself having sex with her. The sister discovers them together.
The last section of the book is the sister's tale and there we learn some of Yeong-hye's back story. We learn, for example, that she was an abused child. She was the middle child with her older sister and younger brother, and her father took out his rage on her. Her sister feels guilty that she did not do more to protect her or support her.
Through the sister's eyes, we see Yeong-hye descending from a healthy vegetarianism into anorexia. She goes from refusing to eat meat to, finally, refusing to eat, period. She is diagnosed with a mental illness and hospitalized. Her husband divorces her. Her parents and brother abandon her. The only one who stands by her in the end is her sister.
Yeong-hye is slowly starving herself to death, even as her sister tries to pull her back and persuade her to eat. She dreams of transforming herself into a tree. Finally, she asks her sister who is trying to persuade her to live, "Why, is it such a bad thing to die?"
In Korean society, where societal mores are expected to be strictly obeyed, her decision to become a vegetarian and live a more plant-based life is seen as an act of subversion. This disturbing novel should evidently be read as an allegory about modern life in Korea, and about obsession and the choices we make, as well as our stumbling attempts to try to understand each other. This is an impressive bit of story-telling by a very talented writer.
Just a note also about the translator: I read this book in English and it was a thoroughly lithe and graceful translation. The translator was Deborah Smith and she, too, is an artist.
This was a difficult one. It’s very dark with an almost constant feeling of dread hovering over it. But the story is truly gripping, not to mention that trying to work out the author’s agenda kept me turning the pages despite myself. It touches on so many large social issues – gender, conformity, moral accountability, as well as more personal things like family relationships, abuse, violence, rage and self-image.
Yeong-hye is repeatedly victimized, in various ways, by men who are either manipulative, predatory or just plain cruel. Yeong-hye’s husband is an utterly conventional corporate striver, so her inability to conform to his expectations and societal norms ultimately destroys their marriage. As an artist, her brother-in-law views himself as an outsider and projects his dark, lustful fantasies onto her in pursuit of his vision. And her sister struggles with guilt over their upbringing with a monstrous father who singled Yeong-hye out for abuse.
It’s tough to summarize one thing that this deceptively slim little volume speaks to; just when I thought I had a handle on the author’s over-arching “message” or theme, the book changed direction slightly and had me thinking about something else entirely. However, there is one particular instance of cruelty from Yeong-hye’s childhood (one of the few passages told from her POV) that strongly suggests her vegetarianism and wish to reject her humanity is a form of atonement for her role in a completely horrific act of cruelty, however powerless she was to stop it. But the story also illustrates how one person’s refusal to conform can have a domino effect on those around them - and how that might be viewed by many as destructive to the fabric of society. The writing is extremely confident and impactful. The author makes you almost believe in the plausibility of Yeong-hye’s physical transformation because her conviction seems so unimpeachable and her desire so ardent. This is a heartbreaking book that works on so many levels and touches on so many themes.
Depressing, but worth it.
The story is told from 3 points of view, husband, brother-in-law and sister. Their focus is Yeong-hye, a woman who one has a bad dream and decides from that day forward she will no longer eat meat or wear anything animal related. This is not just about food, it's about culture, male domination, abuse, freedom and so much more. It's about a woman who finally must fight the evils of those surrounding her, in order to be heard, to become her own person, move forward from her past and it's not an easy process by any means.
There are disturbing acts in this book, you may like me, dislike the characters, in particular Yeong-hye's selfish, uncaring husband and her brother-in-law who takes advantage of her instability. This is not a book you can read once. It's definitely something that will need to be read multiple times to complete understand everything.
Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes, but only for those who can read this with an open mind. This is a translated work so sometimes the story was a little off but while it's a short book, you need to take your time with it.
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The Vegetarian a Korean novel written by Han Kang, is a story that shows the main character’s, Yong-hye, journey after...Read more