Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.
A “completely unremarkable” woman, Yeong-Hye, has a nightmare which results in her renouncing meat (technically she becomes a vegan). What’s the worst that could happen, right? According to Han Kang’s dark imagination, giving up meat is just the beginning. From what I can piece together, Yeong-Hye goes from being repulsed by meat to wanting to separate herself from the animal part of her body to wanting to transform into a plant. She quickly gives up eating all foods, insisting that all she needs is water and sunshine. However, that’s just my interpretation of the course of events – the story isn’t told from Yeong-Hye’s point of view, so I had to put on my detective hat and try to guess what Yeong-Hye was thinking.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is told in three parts, from the vantage points of the people in Yeong-Hye’s life – her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister – and how her actions affect them. Yeong-Hye’s husband is quickly disgusted with her behavior when it disrupts his own life. Her brother-in-law is a video-artist and quickly becomes obsessed with her when he hears that she has a “Mongolian mark” (a type of birthmark) on her butt. Finally, Yeong-Hye’s sister is just doing her best to keep her family together but finds that she relates to her sister much more than she originally suspected. In each section of the story, we have to scramble to re-orient ourselves as we figure out who is telling the story and where the story starts. As a result, a few scenes are told three times from different points of view which becomes exhausting and tedious at times. In the first section of the book, “The Vegetarian”, we get a few glimpses into Yeong-Hye’s nightmares and thoughts. These glimpses are surreal, dark, and left me wanting more. For the remainder of the book, Yeong-Hye is just a passive object of desire and frustration.
I think this may be the first book I’ve ever read by a Korean author. I am always struggling to parse what’s due to the translation and what was written by the author. Without learning new languages, I think the best substitute is to read more of a writer’s work to get a better idea of the writer’s voice. I will definitely be reading more of Han Kang’s work as it becomes available. The writing and style of the story are perfectly spooky and surreal, it was really a pleasure to read the book. At 188 pages, it’s going to keep you up until you finish the whole thing in one sitting. However this is also a demanding book, not something you can skim or breeze through. I struggled a little at first to make sense of some of the Korean terms, from won to pyeong and keeping track of the names. I might revisit this book in a year: it’s the kind of book that will reveal more layers each time you read it.
I would recommend this book to adventurous readers: fans of cryptic dream sequences and surreal imagery. However, I’d like to warn you that there are some scenes of sexual violence which may be a trigger for some people.