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Breaking social convention in modern-day South Korea

Translator Deborah Smith, left, and Han Kang, author of The Vegetarian

Book Review: Must Reads For Youth

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (17+)

“She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

The rigidity of social conventions is often only noticed when these invisible restrictions are broken. Han Kang’s newly translated novel, The Vegetarian, follows the growing unorthodoxy of a South Korean woman, Yeong-hye, in the conservative society of modern-day Seoul.

Yeong-hye’s story is conveyed in three parts – each of the three chapters is told by a different narrator. In the first chapter, The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr Cheong, details the beginnings of his wife’s refusal to eat meat. This sudden shift to vegetarianism results from her persistent and grotesque dreams of violent animal abuse, disrupting their previously staid life. Sporadic accounts of Yeong-hye’s dreams and thoughts make her behaviour – especially from an external point of view – even more harrowing. Even the sight of meat evokes intense visceral reactions in Yeong-hye, and her family’s attempts to drag her back into the norm only escalate the situation.

Yeong-hye’s incessant dreams transform throughout the novel, further plunging her into emotional isolation. By the second chapter, The Mongolian Mark, Yeong-hye has become increasingly distanced from her physical existence. The Mongolian Mark is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law – the husband of her older sister, In-hye – who becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye after his wife casually mentions that Yeong-hye possibly still has a small blue Mongolian mark on her backside from her childhood.

Yeong-hye’s unnamed brother-in-law is a video artist who has been rather stagnant in his artistic evolution since In-hye became the breadwinner of their family. Learning of this mark, a vibrant artistic image of bodies covered in painted flowers overcomes him, and he attempts to make Yeong-hye his muse.

Throughout this chapter, Yeong-hye devolves into something primal and non-human, and this imaginative transformation provokes reflection upon how social conventions can suppress our true selves.

This abstract is advanced in the third and final chapter, Flaming Trees, told from In-hye’s perspective. I promise these titles make perfect sense once you’ve finished reading the book! This chapter takes place three years after the second chapter and primarily focuses on the ramifications of the climactic ending of the second chapter as well as In-hye’s struggle to understand and communicate with Yeong-hye.

Themes such as emotional isolation and the fight against conformity are embodied by all characters in varying forms. Personally, I found In-hye’s gradual understanding of her husband and her sister mesmerising, as Deborah Smith’s remarkable translation is lyrical and gripping. Arguably, the subtle differences between Smith’s translation and Kang’s original text add agency to many characters and increase tension. I found this dramatic and tense atmosphere spellbinding, and would recommend The Vegetarian to anyone interested in delving into modern-day Seoul from a feminist and nonconformist perspective, as well as anyone looking to gain a new understanding of vegetarianism!

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Published May 15, 2023 at 7:59 am (Updated May 15, 2023 at 8:06 am)

Breaking social convention in modern-day South Korea

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