Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”

(This review contains spoilers. Read at your discretion.)

The summary as seen on Goodreads:
Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

If I had to pick two words to describe The Vegetarian, it would be unsettling and mistitled. I’ll explain the second one first: she’s actually vegan. No, really. The protagonist, Yeong-hye, doesn’t only cut out meat from her diet; she also refuses to consume any dairy products, eggs… you know, anything that doesn’t fly under the vegan category. Nothing I know much off, in all honesty, considering that I don’t adhere to that lifestyle. So there’s that.

And for the first word, my first choice was ‘creepy’, but there’s not much frightening things happening in this book. Just one troubling, bewildering event after another.

The book is divided into three parts, each told from someone different but always in some kind of relation to Yeong-hye:

  • Part one is told from Yeong-hye’s husband’s perspective, Mr. Chang. He’s cold, impartial and takes pride in his job and reputation. He admits to not loving his wife—knowing full well that she doesn’t love him back, either—but often subjects her to abuse and rape. In short, he’s a dickhead.
  • Part two is told by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, which I did not expect. There’s something carnal and, dare i say, porny about this one. He is massively infatuated with Yeong-hye—not that she gives a crap—and offers to paint her naked and film her for the sake of art. He, too, is a dickhead, because he ends up cheating on his wife and, instead of facing the consequences like a man, he flees.
  • Part three is told from Yeong-hye’s older sister, In-hye’s, point of view. There’s an obvious intimacy that wasn’t present in the previous parts and we get an up close look at Yeong-hye’s past, switching from present to past and present again. I commend In-hye for looking after her sister and not losing hope in her, despite her stubbornness and  her rapidly deteriorating health (though she got extremely close).

Surprisingly, Yeong-hye never narrates; the closest we get to that is when she describes her dreams in part one in first person. And because they were dreams, none of it really made any sense. Just a bunch of images of darkness, blood and gore—which was what drove her to vegetarianism/veganism in the first place.

But despite the initial feeling of unnerve it caused me, it just didn’t hold its own enough for me. Part one enthralled me because no one, not even the characters, are fully aware of what was going on. It had me hooked. That petered down slowly as I read part two—I know the brother-in-law claimed that he wasn’t going to do anything ‘porny’, but it still read that way to me. He’s a perv; I was more grossed out by it than I was intrigued. By the time I reached part three, my attention had really started to wane. Sure, Yeong-hye’s situation was constantly fluctuating (for the worst) and I may have had a strand of hope that maybe, just maybe, she will snap out of this madness and slowly make her way to recovery, but with all the events leading up to part three, that sounded too good to be true. The mystery of Yeong-hye’s situation was replaced with a sense of constant worry and sickness on her sister’s part. It didn’t help that the constant flashbacks were repetitive. Whilst, again, I applaud In-hye for standing by her sister, I was really bored.

I didn’t like the ending much, either. I knew there wasn’t going to be a concrete solution to tie up the absurdity of Yeong-hye’s situation, but it was just flat. No drama, no resolution, just cutscene and fade to black.

I will say this, however. While I know most people would think that this is a story about one woman’s descent into mental illness, I also think that this could also work as some kind of commentary on how oppressive the situation for women can be in Korea—or East Asia in general, really. In addition to vegetarianism/veganism not being a completely accepted idea yet, the conditions for women are harsh and stifling. There are many social norms they must adhere to. And so by going vegetarian/vegan, Yeong-hye, in a way, is defying expectations and choosing her own path. But because she is rebelling against her culture, repercussions start raining down on her, which puts her and other women involved under more stress and strain. It was dark and alarming. Which is probably what Han Kang was going for? If so, then she did a damn good job at it because the story really did impact me in that way.

If you’ve made it this far into my post, then thank you for reading! Have you read this book before? If so, how did you find it? If not, would you like to? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you in my next post!

Also, can you believe that my last book review was posted in October? That’s how busy/lazy I’ve been. Deadlines are endless.

Until next time,
Dev.

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