Book review: The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian


The Vegetarian

Han Kang
Deborah Smith
from the Korean
Winner of the 2016
Man Booker International Prize

Hogarth/Crown Publishing

Release date:
available also as ebook and audiobook

Literary fiction


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I received The Vegetarian months ago through Blogging For Books. And of course, it got stuck on my shelf behind books to read urgently for tours and the like. I devoured it in no time, but then, it got stuck on my review list, so here it is finally, months after it received the Man Booker International Prize.

I followed live the ceremony for the Man Booker Prize International and rooted for The Vegetarian, as it had also been chosen as the winner by the shadow panel.
It is wonderful to know that the winners of this literary translation award share the prize money between author and translator. Are translators finally started being recognized as real authors as well? It’s about time.
Besides, it was quite encouraging to learn that all the translators of the short list were rather new translators, some unknown, who had even landed into literary translation almost by accident for some.
I enjoyed listening to both author and translator. I was not surprised to discover than Han Kang went through the Iowa writing workshop. I have yet to read an author who went through this training and that I don’t admire. What are they doing there? What’s their secret?
It was also quite reassuring to hear Deborah Smith confess she basically checked out every word in her dictionary. For sure, there’s no comparison of difficulty between Korean and English, but still, it makes me more comfortable when I think I am too anal double checking too many words myself when I translate novels into French.

The Vegetarian is weird, and gets weirder and weirder through the three stories. Each story focuses on Yeong-hye, from the perspective of her husband, her brother-in-law, and finally her sister.
One day, because of a dream she had, Yeong-hye feels obsessively compelled to become a vegetarian – actually details in the books seem to imply to me she is more accurately a vegan.

In the first story, the writing alternates between her husband’s narration of how things unravel, and Yeong-hye’s dreams, memories, and thoughts, like a journal, in italics in the text.
Her decision takes devastating dimensions, not unrelated to some strange traits of her personality, somewhat dormant before that.
Actually, each main character in the book has some type of psychological issue. Some having to do with violence or sex.

The book tackles mental illness and the world of psychiatric hospitals, but also family dynamics and how your parents’ behavior when you were a child can have dramatic consequences on your own adult development. I think it also raises the suggestion that one way or another, we all have psychological weaknesses, obsessions, and problems, some hidden until one event will cause them to fully bloom.

It is also an interesting look at the place of dreams in our life, and at the thin partition there may be between dream and reality.
It was interesting to read a book where the Mongolian mark is so central. Many Americans may not be familiar with it, but someone in my family was born with it, so I knew exactly what it was.

As an artist and painter myself, I was able to go beyond the weirdness and enjoy the beautiful painting scenes.

The writing is fabulous, tense, detailed, excellent at evoking the inevitable and doom. I never once had the feeling I was reading a book in translation. It all flowed superbly.


Roman intriguant touchant à l’obsessionnel. Très belle écriture pour un sujet difficile.

VERDICT: Hauntingly attractive novel focusing on obsessions and how far they can go. Tough topic with some extreme scenes, and beautiful writing.


A beautiful, unsettling novel about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul.
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.
Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.


Han Kang

Han Kang
was born in 1970 in South Korea.
She made her literary debut as a poet,
and was first published as a novelist in 1994.
A participant of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,
Han has won the Man Booker International Prize,
the Yi Sang Literary Award,
the 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.

Visit her website

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What’s your favorite novel translated from the Korean?

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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this book for free from Blogging for Books in exchange for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.

This book counted for the following Reading Challenges

New-Release-Challenge2016   aroundtheworld2012
Books in Translation 2016  New Authors


14 thoughts on “Book review: The Vegetarian

  1. Pingback: 2016 New Release Challenge | Words And Peace

  2. Pingback: Around The World in 52 books | Words And Peace

  3. Pingback: 2016 books in translation reading challenge | Words And Peace

  4. Pingback: 2016 New authors reading challenge | Words And Peace

    • well, strangeness is definitely a word I would associate with this book, lol. Oh, I saw this book at the library yesterday and thought of you. Have you read it? Sounds interesting: The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar


  5. This one is on my (physical) book shelf waiting its turn to be read (ah if only I had infinite time to read). I guess I’d better bump it up the list!


    • thanks, but I translate from English into French, as I’m actually French. Looks like you are Native English, so my translation work may not be of great interest to you.
      By the way, you pasted the link to my own review. And there’s no search button on your blog, but I managed to find it through google advanced search


  6. Pingback: Book review: The Plotters | Words And Peace

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