The Vegetarian, By Han Kang

What’s This Book All About?

One of the most startling novel that I have ever read, all the trigger warnings on earth could not have prepared me for the traumas of this Korean author’s translated debut work. This story focuses on the primal side that is present in every human being. This primal side is always in conflict because there are two opposing forces in its life; one that disrespects social norms, has needs and makes demands while the other side is keen to act in a manner, that is in accordance with the norms of society and family.

The Vegetarian is a compelling, disturbing and grotesque story about the mental illness Yeong-hye sinks into, after her decision to become a vegetarian. It is never told from Yeong-hye’s perspective, rather from three of her family members including  her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister.

The Bigger Picture

Set in contemporary South Korea, The Vegetarian explores the life of a young married woman, Yeong-hye, whose decision to give up meat ends up devastating two families. The only explanation that she is willing to give her husband is that, “I had a dream.” Though her husband is not aware, the reader is given a glimpse into the nature of her dreams; it is dark, bloody and aggressive. Violence soon erupts into Yeong-hye’s real world, when her father attempts to force a piece of meat into her mouth, and revolted she attempts suicide by stabbing herself.

And that is just the starting point because everything goes downhill from here. A lot of other people are dragged in, other relationships are impacted and Yeong-hye’s decision to remain as a vegetarian is the one constant as almost her entire family collapses before our eyes. Hang Kang, a prize wining novelist has structured this story into three different parts. The first narrator is Mr Cheong, who is Yeong-hye’s husband and a business man who thought that he had chosen a spouse with an insignificant personality. Her husband becomes horrified to discover her radical spirit {when she decides to adopt vegetarianism}, which threatens to complicate his meticulously uncomplicated life. Her idiosyncratic behaviour from exposing her nipples to starving herself by eating just plants, leads to him eventually divorcing her.

The second part of the novel is focussed on the sexually charged relationship between Yeong-hye and her brother-in-law, a character simply know as J. An artist, he has long envisioned an art project, a potential magnum opus, where he wants to paint huge elaborate flowers on the body of a woman. After he discovers that Yeong-hye still has a Mongolian mark {a type of birthmark that usually vanishes in childhood}, he becomes attracted to her and his obsession is soon intermingled with both lust and artistic obsession. This part of the novel is an exciting and imaginative journey into obsession, lust, art and dreams, which in the end has drastic consequences.

The third and final chapter takes place three years after the opening of the novel. Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital, and her sister In-hye is the only member of the family who has not abandoned her. By this time however, Yeong-hye refuses all food and In-hye is literally helpless in the face of her sister’s self-imposed starvation. In-hye experiences her own emotional crisis when, prompted by a recurring dream, she abandons her husband and young son one night while they are asleep.

The writing in this novel challenges a strict value system that demands complete devotion to the family, conformism and the denial of erotic freedom. Han Kang’s achievement is to suggest that sometimes a single defiant act of vegetarianism can smash several lives and threaten the very fabric of society. Originally published in South Korea in 2007, this book was inspired by the author’s short story The Fruit of My Woman and was recently translated into English by Deborah Smith. A word of credit is completely due to her because she has been able to inhabit the prose’s terrible serenity and glacial horror in a successful manner; the translator’s hand never overwhelms or underperforms. As Yeong-hye changes, the book’s language shifts, too, with Deborah Smith’s translation moving between the baffled irritation of Mr Cheong’s first-person narration in part one, the measured prose of In-hye’s world, the dense and bloody narrative of Yeong-hye’s dreams, and seductive descriptions of living bodies painted with flowers, in states of transformation or wasting away.

Despite everything, Han Kang’s novel is not a cautionary tale for omnivorous because Yeong-hype’ journey into vegetarianism is anything but happy. Abstaining from eating meat does not lead to enlightenment. As Yeong-hye goes further and further away from the living, we are left with the question whether we should wish for our hero to die or survive. And with that comes another, ultimate question which is again reflected in the thoughts of Yeong-hye when she says, “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

Final Verdict

Sentence by sentence, The Vegetarian is an extraordinary experience and despite being set in South Korea has an eerie universality that gets under your skin and stays with you irrespective of nation or gender. Without doubt sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions, this book is more than a cautionary tale about the brutal treatment of women {or meat eating}; it is in fact a meditation on suffering and grief. It is about escape and how a dreamer takes flight. Most of all, it is about the emptiness and rage of discovering there is nothing to be done when all hope and comfort fails.

In conclusion, I definitely enjoyed this book, despite the fact that it was extremely horrific and terrifying. If you want a book that exposes mental illness and taboo subjects without mincing words then this one is definitely for you. Han Kang has mastered eloquent restraint in a work of savage beauty and unnerving physicality. Thumbs up from my side.

Featured image courtesy: London Review Bookshop


One thought on “The Vegetarian, By Han Kang

  1. Glad to read this review. I have still not got my hands on the book. But I keep reading the reviews and all say it is a superb piece of writing

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