The Vegetarian: a horror novel with uncommon staying power
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The South Korean novel, “The Vegetarian,” written by Han Kang, chronicles the devastating effects on the family of housewife Yeong-hye when she decides to give up meat after she has an incredibly disturbing nightmare. After her dream, which exposes the darkest aspects of humanity to her, Yeong-hye begins to act strangely, almost as if she is possessed by a demon and in a trance.
The story is told in three parts in order to show Yeong-hye’s life from three different viewpoints: her husband’s, her brother-in-law’s, and her sister’s.
The book’s cover art, plot summary, reviews and the entire marketing campaign painted the novel as a disturbing work of horror, chronicling this woman’s descent into madness (and possibly into demonic possession).
Those expecting a fast-paced horror novel, ready to be scared and on the edge of their seats, may come out very disappointed by Kang’s complete lack of traditional horror elements in the second and third parts of the book.
Although the first section of this book reads like a traditional descent-into-madness piece, the final two parts deviate from this template and veer into bizarre, disturbing, and erotic areas (oftentimes simultaneously).
The second part of the novel, which is told from her brother-in-law’s point of view, details his bizarre sexual obsession with Yeong-hye from the time she became withdrawn and his attempts to trick her into having sex on-camera with an actor in a faux-art film his is directing.
Bizarre? Certainly. Scary? Not so much.
This second act takes up most of the work, and it will almost certainly be what the reader remembers from Kang’s work. The careful and delicate balancing of desire and shame, and an eloquent combination of beauty and disgust deeply permeates this section. It is genuinely disturbing.
The third section of the novel is extremely brief, detailing Yeong-hye’s husband’s suicide attempt.
Horror seems to be running out of tricks. “The Vegetarian” is one of the most original works of horror in recent memory, perhaps ever. The images the work paints need time to fester, but once they set in, they are hard to forget. Kudos to Kang, proving that not every scary work needs a ghost or a home invasion.
It’s difficult to call “The Vegetarian” a good piece of work, at least in the traditional sense. It does not have likeable characters, the plot does not move forward quickly and it’s firmly outside of the mainstream style.
However, what makes a written work of fiction good? A common criteria for judging a work’s merit when reviewing is to ask: Did the author accomplish his or her goal?
Han Kang did exactly what she set out to do. She plants a seed in the reader’s mind that will continue to grow and linger long after they have put her book down. This book deals with the most shameful appetites of humans and the lengths we go to satisfy them. “The Vegetarian” is a horror masterpiece.