During my autumn break I found out that one of the books I had borrowed – The Vegetarian by Han Kang – was closing in on its return date and I was unable to renew so I had to speed read it. And what a read that was!
I have to admit that my knowledge of Korean literature – and Asian literature in general – is rather sparse. In fact, prior to my encounter with The Vegetarian I do not think I have ever read a Korean book in my life.
I first learned about this when I saw Jen Campbell talking about her in one of her videos and recommending it. I trust her opinion because it was also through her video that I read Ruby by Cynthia Bond which I absolutely adored and she spoke highly of this one so I had to check it out.
Minor spoilers from here.
After having a nightmare, Yeong-hye decides to cut meat completely from her diet. This is not a decision that the world around her takes lightly; her husband is more than a little annoyed with her, his colleagues are asking her mocking questions, her sister is worried sick and her father abuses her physically and tries to force feed her when she refuses to eat meat during a family dinner. The latter leads to the hospitalization of Yeong-hye and her divorce from her husband. We see the evolution of her obsession behind the vegetarian diet as the years pass by.
The book has three main sections, each with their own point of view and narrative. The first one is from the husband’s point of view as first person perspective. He is deeply unsympathetic, he thinks like his wife is doing this to spite him and he uses her odd behaviour as a justification to abuse her, both mentally and physically. He only perceives the situation in ways that affect him rather than being worried about his wife and he is more concerned with what other people think of him because of Yeong-Hye’s behaviour.
We then shift to the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law, who is an artist. He has an obsession with using Yeong-Hye in his art because he learns she has a “Mongolian Mark”, a special kind of birth mark. He is also fascinated and even attracted to her androgynous, skinny look. He kind of fetishes her rather than seeing her as a human being, because he is so focused on creating his masterpiece. This of course does not end well.
The final point of view is In-Hye, Yeong-Hye’s sister. She is the only one who seems to show any sort of concern with Yeong-Hye herself, especially at this later state where she has stopped eating all together and has been hospitalized, because she has become delusional and believes she is not human.
The book has a lot of passages that are unpleasant, but it works with the themes. I also like the detail with the two male characters mostly referring to Yeong-Hye by her relationship to them or others – such as “my wife”, “her sister”, “his daughter” rather than her name unlike her sister who constantly uses her name. I know that the Korean language has names based on relationships between people, but this seems like a deliberate choice. It has the effect of her being seemingly meaningless to the men unless they can relate her to something, whereas her sister sees her as a human, and one in pain at that.
I do know a bit about Korean culture from what I have gathered from Youtubers who live there or have lived there and based on that, this novel really seems to be a critique of the perception of women in Korean culture; that when they act outside the norm they will exposed to brutal abuse and shunning, simply based on the fact that they are women and should not behave that way. When they do something it is not seen as something they do for themselves, but rather something they do in order to inconvenience others. In The Vegetarian the only person who sees that Yeong-Hye is a product of her upbringing – which seems to have been a violent one based on the reaction of her father when she refuses to eat meat and based on her sister’s reflections on her childhood – is In-Hye and she is the only one to understand that it has had consequences for her mental health. She is also the only one who suggests certain meals within the vegetarian paradigm to her sister in order to make sure she gets the proper nutrition, while everyone else just tells her that she cannot live without meat.
The language of The Vegetarian is simple and minimalized, yet creates elaborate and detailed images in your head. It is the type of book that really creeps under your skin and sticks there for quite a while… or that might just be me because I read it over such a short time, which was intense!
It is a beautiful book and I am definitely going to check out one of Han Kang’s other books, Human Acts, soon.