Every once in a while I read a book, and I think to myself, “Oh my god, what did I just read?”
Sometimes it’s a good reaction, and sometimes it’s because I just spent a few hours trying to figure out when the plot turned left and I turned right! Sometimes, it’s simply a case of a discomforting, quietly beautiful story that morphs into something much more than what I originally thought.
In the case of The Vegetarian by Han Kang it’s definitely the last one.
Yeong-hye is a perfectly normal, average woman, and that’s what her husband loves about her. Sure, she has some eccentricities, like refusing to wear a bra, but overall, she’s exceptionally ordinary. Then one night Yeong-hye has a dream and decides to stop eating meat. This upsets her family and her husband, as they try to grasp her choice. But, there may be more at work than a simple dietary change.
This might be the hardest book I’ve reviewed yet. It’s such a unique story that I just wasn’t sure what to make of it when I first put it down. First, let me say that, there are not enough trigger warnings in the world to prepare you for what is going to take place in this novel. It’s not a comforting read at all–it’s unsettling, at times sickening, and a little bit heartbreaking all at once.
In forming my thoughts on this book I am trying not to sink into ethnographical and sociological analysis, and a I am looking to this New York Times review that references early British reviews of this book as an example of what it is not:
For a danger here would be to focus only on the ethnographic and sociological. In Britain, where “The Vegetarian” landed on The Evening Standard’s best-seller list, reviews tried to make sense of its strangeness by attributing it to the culture. “The narrative makes it clear it is the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette which murders them,” The Independent daftly concluded. Other British reviewers tried to emphasize that vegetarianism is impossible in South Korea. Likewise, a contemporary Western feminist lens could also yield a condemnation of the novel as an exercise in female debasement or “torture porn.” But this would again assume a problematic normalcy and measure the book against it. There is an entire world of literature outside the West that is not adapted to our markets, in debt to our trends or in pursuit of our politics.
In case my earlier statement wasn’t clear enough, The Vegetarian is unsettling, and it is strange. If you want me to put it on a scale, imagine reading The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake and then multiplying it by five. Make no mistake that while this book is thin, it does take a while to digest.
Now, as flippant, and insistent, as I am being about the content and the overall tone of this book, I happen to like when books make me think, and I also tend to find messages that may not be there. In short, The Vegetarian is my bread and butter, and I think its safe to say that I will probably be gnawing on and digesting (pun intended) the themes of this book for a while.
As unsettling as it is, The Vegetarian is a haunting tale of subversion, perversion, and submission. These themes all knot themselves up into a really dynamic story and the result haunts you.
Reading the blurb and the first line, it sounds like such a simple premise, but at the same time it says so much about this one character and how this extended family functions as a unit, but it also talks about Korean mores and how this simple decision is seen as being self-centered.
It isn’t until the end of the first third of the book that we see that there is really something more going on under the surface of Yeong-hye deciding to become a vegetarian. While at a family dinner, where her mother, father, and sister all try to coax her into eating meat, Yeong-hye takes a fruit knife and slits her wrists, and the novel’s focus shifts to mental health.
For the second and third half of the novel, I found myself unsettled as I followed Yeong-hye’s relationship with her brother-in-law, and her sister’s dogged attempts to make sure she’s cared for.
Yeong-hye is a fascinating character, but what I find really interesting is that she doesn’t have a voice in the novel. Told in three parts, this book focuses on how her husband, her brother-in-law, and finally her sister perceive her choice and what is happening to her.
That was unsettling for me, to see this woman robbed of her agency, but I also had to remind myself that I was reading a story that takes place in another culture where mental health isn’t commonly discussed. But even when someone is talking to her, most of the direct dialogue we see for the first half of the book is “I had a dream.”
I am trying really hard to not put this book through my western lens and to just let it exist and be the oddly, beautiful story it is, so I will leave you with these thoughts before I start to let that side show.
FINAL RATING: 4 Stars