The Vegetarian – Han Kang
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.
Review: This review is for the English translation of a Korean book.
First, a public service announcement: If you’re on a diet, this book will make you crave food like crazy. There is so much food in this story! Someday, a raging hungry lady is going to commit homicide to get her hands on some Korean BBQ after reading this thing. Do not read while hungry.
Anyway, I put off reading The Vegetarian for a long time because of the hype. Then it won the Man Booker International award, and I was like, fine, I’ll read it. I’m glad I did. It’s a quiet, slow-paced, strange, well-written little novel.
The book focuses on a young woman called Yeong-hye, but she doesn’t get much of a point-of-view. The story is told from the points-of-view of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. After a series of violent dreams, Yeong-hye turns vegetarian. When the dreams don’t stop, she becomes determined to make herself more plant-like. She rarely speaks, stops eating, and tries to live on sunlight alone. Finally, her behavior gets so bizarre that she is committed to a hospital.
“There's nothing wrong with keeping quiet, after all, hadn't women traditionally been expected to be demure and restrained?” – The Vegetarian
Almost all of the characters are jerks. That’s what made them so endlessly fascinating to me. This story isn’t about Yeong-hye’s mental illness; it’s about how her behavior affects other people. Her husband has no patience for an “unusual” wife. He wants a wife who takes care of him and doesn’t complain. When Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism causes a minor inconvenience at a dinner party, he considers divorcing her. Since she won’t conform to society, she’s an embarrassment to him.
Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is a pervert. He romanticizes her “otherness.” She becomes a childlike sex-object in his imagination. It’s weird.
The sister is the least overtly selfish. She takes care of Yeong-hye, but she’s also jealous. Yeong-hye’s hospitalization gives Yeong-hye an excuse not to participate in traditional Korean culture. No one expects Yeong-hye to be a supportive wife, or a perfect mother, or to keep a job. Yeong-hye just sits in a mental hospital all day, pretending to be a tree. She’s free.
“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. 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 Vegetarian
I went into this book knowing that it was slow-paced, but sometimes it was too slow for me. The characters spend a lot of time thinking and not much time doing things. (Other than rape. They do rape each other occasionally.) The sexual obsession parts especially bogged down the story. I understand that the guy is obsessed, but it gets repetitive. The sister’s chapter is also very slow.
This story did force me to think, though, which I always appreciate. The Vegetarian shows that people can never truly understand one another, and often they don’t even try. The story is about happiness and conformity. Society tells us that we need to have a “perfect” life to be happy. Yeong-hye’s sister has a “perfect” life. She has a husband, a son, an apartment, and a successful career. But, she’s miserable. She’s envious of Yeong-hye because Yeong-hye doesn’t have to meet society’s expectations. Yeong-hye is finding her own path to happiness instead of following the one that society lays out for everyone.
The book is also about narrowmindedness. Maybe Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism wouldn’t have become a mental illness if her family had accepted it. When she announces that she’s becoming vegetarian, her family forces meat into her mouth so that she’d conform to society. They humiliate her. Maybe the pressure to conform makes people sick.
Despite its slowness, The Vegetarian lived up to the hype for me. I probably need to be less of a hipster and give popular books a chance.