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.
It’s rare nowadays I finish a book in a day, never mind a single sitting, but that’s what happened to me this time last week after picking up The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Despite the good reviews I’d read, it wasn’t a book I’d expected to love as much as I did. I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t stopped turning pages.
One night Yeong-hye has a dream. In it there is blood, lots of blood. She wakes up full of dread and decides she must give up meat in order to get rid of the lump she now feels in her chest, becoming the vegetarian of the title. It might not be the most conventional way to make such a decision but here, in the UK, deciding to become a vegetarian wouldn’t be much of a big deal, regardless of why you made the choice. This is South Korea though (and the book a translation) and Yeong-hye’s decision is greeted with surprise by her husband. Still, he thinks, it won’t last. It is just one her quirks.
But it does last – a week, a month – and her husband goes from surprised to angry, involving his wife’s family who are just as bemused and annoyed as he is. They can’t understand Yeong-hye’s behaviour but are all agreed it isn’t right and it’s an embarrassment. What will people think? No one stops to ask Yeong-hye what she thinks or why she is doing it. No one seems to wonder what is behind her decision or feel anything but annoyance at how she is wasting away. It is all quite sad and I felt for Yeong-hye as she was attacked by her family. It was a fascinating glimpse into the social mores of South Korea, the strict rules and the role of women.
All are so constraining. No deviation is allowed, even in the artistic. This can been seen in the second of the three parts that’s make up The Vegetarian, all of which involve Yeong-hye, when her brother-in-law develops an obsession with his sister-in-law that can only end in disaster and in the third, when Yeong-hye has been abandoned by all but her sister for not doing what she is told. Through it all, it is apparent how little control over her life Yeong-hye has other than the food she puts in her mouth.
This isn’t an easy story to read. It deals with difficult issues and does so head on. Yet, despite all this it isn’t a depressing book, though I would describe it as harsh and hard hitting. And powerful. There is a sadness there too and I found I cared a lot for Yeong-hye from the first few pages on, coming to feel the same about her sister by the end. A week on, I am still thinking about the book, which was beautifully translated, a real compliment to the author and the story. Loved it and can’t recommend it enough.
Note: I received this book in return for a fair and honest review from blogging for books. All thoughts and feelings are my own.