The Vegetarian, Han Kang, Hogarth Press, 2015, 188 pp (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, orig published in Korea, 2007)
Summary from Goodreads: Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
My problem in reviewing this novel is I can’t figure out what to say. The story of Yeong-hye, who decides to stop eating any food that comes from animals after having a dream, is so brutal and heartbreaking. It left me drained and reeling.
This woman’s story is told by three of her relatives: her husband, who divorces her because she became too much for him to deal with; her brother-in-law, who victimizes her in order to work out his artistic conundrums; and her sister, who tries to save her. Except for some of Yeong-hye’s dialogue, we never get inside of her mind. Those three relatives come with baggage of their own, leaving the reader to piece together the causes and effects of the woman’s life.
I have not read an entire novel set in current day South Korea before and was somewhat surprised to discover that modern life in that country is such a convoluted mix of Asian and Western concepts.
The husband views his wife as “the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world…she made for a completely ordinary wife without any distasteful frivolousness…it was rare for her to demand anything of me.” When she turns out to be quite the opposite, he drops her without remorse. On the other hand, he has quite Western viewpoints on why people turn to a vegetarian diet.
During a scene with Yeong-hye’s family, her father who is himself a Vietnam veteran with anger issues, tries to force her to eat some meat by mashing it against her closed mouth.
The brother-in-law has what I would call a Western sensibility when it comes to his artistic pursuits. He is a creator of videos, technically accomplished in all aspects of film making, who feels stifled and unfulfilled in his work. His wife takes care of all the details of life, holding a job, raising their child, and keeping their home, so that he can spend his time wrangling with his genius. Yet he also has no concept of the inner life of women except to see them as people he can use.
The sister is the brother-in-law’s wife. She works herself to exhaustion and has no emotional life except as a mother. When Yeong-hye spirals into a complete breakdown, her sister gets her into a reputable mental hospital and attends her with exemplary devotion. From her we finally learn some secrets from their childhood.
I am not sure what the author is trying to put across with her novel. The disconnect between centuries of strict social mores and modern life? The brutality of men towards women? The breakdown of an abused personality? As I read, I felt adrift in Yeong-hye’s mind, the very mind we can only see through those other characters. Her attempt to take some semblance of control over her own life is a total failure in the eyes of her family, while she appears to feel she is approaching her destiny.
Through finely wrought prose, endless images of blood and plant life, repeated instances of desires fulfilled and needs unmet, Han Kang unveils a disastrous failure of this entire family.
So. I have managed to say a few things. Writing this review has left me drained. I would recommend the book as an exploration into the mystery of human weakness.
The Vegetarian has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize of 2016.
(The Vegetarian is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)