I just finished The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, which is my choice for the Protego (#ownvoices) prompt. Though this was a relatively quick read, I have felt quite a large number and variety of feels about it. It wasn’t what I expected; from what I’d heard, I’d misinterpreted the overall trajectory of the book. I’d thought it was going to be a novel about an oppressed woman in modern Korean culture reclaiming her identity by choosing to become a vegetarian (a lifestyle that her family finds incomprehensible).
It is…not that.
Or maybe it is.
But if it is, it wasn’t in the way I anticipated. The main character, Yeong-hye, does not have a strong voice at any point in the novel. Her words come in italicized snippets at key moments in the other character’s sections. We hear from her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, who all seek to control Yeong-hye rather than understand her. Yeong-hye herself is less a person and more a walking denial. Her silences, rejections, and refusals shape the novel, the negative space that throws into sharp relief the selfishness and cruelty of every other character’s actions. This is a novel without a protagonist.
It’s translated from Korean (by Deborah Smith), but the language never feels murky or imprecise. Its stark sentences work in the plot’s favor– there’s nothing to hide behind. I really enjoyed reading this novel, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in thinking about the way our cultures can control our perspectives.
For anyone who is doing a reading challenge, this book fulfilled Book Riot’s Read Harder “A book set more than 5000 miles from your location” and the Litsy Reading Challenge’s “A book that won an award in 2016” (The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize).
After that heavy read, I think I’ll move on to something a little lighter– maybe Sorcerer to the Crown? Maybe All the Single Ladies? I’m halfway through White Girls, but since it’s a book of essays it’s easy to pick up and put down. The readathon continues!