The Vegetarian by Han Kang [book review]
I stopped eating meat about 30 years ago as an experiment in healthy eating. Like Yeong-hye, the central character in The Vegetarian, I came in for many challenges from certain members of my family who couldn’t understand why I wanted to forsake what, for them, was a standard element of any meal. Fortunately I had a more cohesive answer than the one Yeong-hye gives her husband: “I had a dream.” she tells him when he discovers her sat on the floor of their kitchen in Seoul, surrounded by packets of meat she has thrown out of the freezer.
We learn, though her husband doesn’t, that her dream is grotesque, bloody and aggressive. And so is the reaction to her decision. Her husband frets about how this will look to his boss who invites them for dinner (the resulting occasion is a painful event). father, so incensed that she will not eat the delicacies prepared for a family lunch, tries to force a piece of sweet-and-sour pork into her mouth. In protest Yeong-hye stabs herself.
And yet who would have imagined this of a woman whose nature until then had been so docile and insignificant; the very reason her husband chose her for his bride was that she was “completely unremarkable in every way”. And yet here she is refusing to wear a bra, defying Korean cultural expectations by putting her own needs above those of family and husband, and to eat only plants even though she is clearly starving herself. Only her brother in law, an unsuccessful video artist, finds her attractive. Unfortunately he’s not interested in her as such, only in Yeong-hye as a body, a canvas upon which he can paint giant flowers and plants. She becomes the object of his sexually-charged obsession that transforms her body into a “huge, abstracted plant.”
The Vegetarian is told in three acts which have distinctive differences in language from measured prose to almost hallucinatory description and to fragmented internal monologues where we get to learn what is going on in Yeong-hye’s mind.
Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening–what am I going to gouge
The first act, narrated by her husband interposed by Yeong-hye’s dreams, deals with her decision and her family’s reaction; the second is narrated by her brother-in-law and the third by her sister In-hye; the only member of the family who seems genuinely to care for Yeon-hye. She maintains contact when all others abandon the woman, unable to deal with her increasingly bizarre actions. But In-hye’s patience is tested severely when she visits her sister to learn she believes she is a tree, taking sustenance only from the soil, violently refusing attempts to force feed her when placed in a mental institution.
“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”
This is a portrait of disintegration. Yeong-hye’s rebellion causes her mental faculties to collapse and lead to the destruction of two families. It’s also a quite unflinching portrait about the clash between personal desire and conformity to expectations of behaviour in a society that denies such desires. Repeatedly we’re shown the clash between desire and denial in a way that asks disturbing questions about the nature of personal choice and ownership of one’s body in Korean society.
For a short novel, this is a startling piece of work. It’s disturbing in its portrayal of mental collapse, provocative in its portrayal of rebellion against conformity and unstinting with its descriptions of bleeding, vomiting, and manic behaviour. This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.
About the book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith was published in 2015. It was considered ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea on first publication but has since been translated into more than 20 languages. The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016. Han Kang has gone on record that the inspiration for the book, initially published as three novellas, was a line by a modernist poet Yi Sang: ‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ which obsessed her while she was at university. Further insights on the book are in an interview for the White Review.
About the author: Han Kang comes from a literary family in Korea, her father is a novelist and her brother a writer. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University, South Korea. She is the winner of several awards including the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Since 2013 she has been teaching creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. 2016 saw the publication in translation of Human Acts which begins with the massacre of students in South Korea in 1980. If you don’t know her work, you can get a taste with the short story Fruit of My Woman on the Granta website
Why I read this book: I bought The Vegetarian as a way of making up for my large deficiency of knowledge of writers from Asia. It’s the first book I’ve read from my 20booksof summerproject for 2017.