Read: January 2017
Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.
Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.
As I sit to gather my thoughts on this book, The Vegetarian, I am still really unsure of what I actually did think of it. I read the whole thing with my brow furrowed since it was equally dark and fascinating and I just couldn’t tear myself away from it.
It was so interesting that this entire book was about Yeong-hye, but there were very few passages from her point of view. She goes vegetarian because of a dream and we get bits and pieces of this dream, but never a full account of what it was. I know a book about becoming vegetarian seems a little normal (since people do this all the time), but this was far from normal since doing something like this in South Korea just seems … wrong. It was intense, in the first part, to see how Yeong-hye’s decision unraveled everyone.
I liked how the book was laid out, in three parts, with the first part told by Yeong-hye’s husband, the second by her brother-in-law, and the last by her sister. It showed that everyone has something they’re hiding, some kind of wall that everyone feels they’re up against, and it really was an interesting account of human nature. Let’s just say I’ll never look at a tree the same way again.
I’d be interested to try more of Han Kang’s books, but probably not anytime soon. I found the subject matter to be quite disturbing, vulgar, and just way too intense. It’s not that I’m against books like that, but I can only take them in small doses. I can definitely see how this book was the recipient of the Man Booker Prize; there were plenty of hidden depths to it and in such a tiny volume, the entire story packed quite a punch.