The Vegetarian was the last book I read in April, and wow, what a way to finish the month! Han Kang’s novel is told across three parts, each with a focus on a different character. Each different character bears some relationship to the central character, the vegetarian herself, Yeong-Hye. I had heard before I started reading this book that it’s ‘weird’, and to some extent, I agree. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, as it is gory and repulsive in places. Despite the subject matter, Kang’s talent for writing and Deborah Smith’s amazing translation transforms this story into something that is, somehow, beautiful.
Warning: this book contains sensitive topics, including rape, suicide attempts/self-harm, eating disorders, and mental illness, and this review will discuss some of those topics.
At the centre of this book is a woman who decides, on day, because of a dream, to become vegetarian. This may seem to many Western readers like a fairly innocuous decision, but in her society in South Korea, this is a subversion. The reaction of Yeong-Hye’s husband is the first thing that suggests this new diet might not be as straightforward as it seems. Yeong-Hye’s quiet determination, and absolute dedication and resolve to her cause had me completely under her spell. For a central character, Yeong-Hye is surprisingly absent from the text. We are never permitted to see into her mind, and her closed-off demeanour means she offers us little through her dialogue. Most of what we know about her we learn through others’ opinions of her: first her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally, her sister. I found this a very interesting way to learn about a character, and despite the negative or dehumanising attitudes these people tend to have towards her, I found her character extremely compelling, and I felt a strong affinity for her. I was definitely rooting for her throughout this book, wishing for her to be able to live her life in peace. Perhaps this is partly because I’m also a vegetarian, and while I haven’t been persecuted the way Yeong-Hye is for her diet, I have experienced uncomfortable questions about my choice, and I had a lot of empathy for the way she was treated by her family.
As I mentioned above, this book deals with a lot of sensitive topics, and has some very visceral, traumatic images of Yeong-Hye’s suffering body. Despite this, moments of beauty are interspersed. Yeong-Hye finds some kind of temporary peace when her body is covered in painted flowers. The moments of beauty are, not by coincident, all moments Yeong-Hye feels the most connected to nature. As her mental state deteriorates, she finds these connections in more and more disturbing ways as her freedom is restricted. The dream, which appears to be the catalyst for Yeong-Hye’s decision to become vegetarian, and her subsequent mental decline, is described in gory detail, yet still seems just out of reach, as a dream always is. In these sections, early in the book, the line between fantasy and reality is beautifully blurred, rendering the repulsive dream in exquisite detail, yet retaining its distance from reality.
Something else I thought this book did really well was the pacing. At first, I was concerned that the pacing had sped up too soon: the end of the first section felt like the climax and I wasn’t sure where it could go. Then, I realised how this book is structured. Each section is, really, its own story, the story of the new protagonist and their relationship to Yeong-Hye. The stories all, to some and differing extent, address themes of sexuality, mental health, the position of women, and taboos. These themes are incredibly common in literature, yet I found it refreshing to read about them from a changed perspective. So many of the books I read are by British or American authors (something I’m working on changing this year!), so I really enjoyed being able to read about these themes being explored within South Korean culture. As all these sections are, in effect, their own stories, it meant that the rising and slowing pacing felt very natural. Each story had a climax, because each narrator had a climax to their relationship with Yeong-Hye.
The final thing I wanted to talk about in relation to this book was its depiction of mental health. Yeong-Hye’s journey is heart-breaking, and the final section shows the true effects her illness has had on her body. She is unable to realise the effects her illness has had on her body, but for me, the descriptions of the care she requires in the hospital, her behaviour, and the reaction of those around her show that her behaviour is incredibly self-destructive. The one thing I’m not so keen on about this book is the link between her vegetarianism and descent into mental illness and disordered eating, as of course, these things do not necessarily follow on from one another, and plenty of vegetarians have a healthy relationship with food. Her vegetarianism seemed in the second and final parts of the book to be almost irrelevant. Her disordered eating is relevant, certainly, but that extends far beyond her refusal to eat meat.
Yeong-Hye’s state at the end of this book is anything but glorified to me. Yet, throughout all of her illness, and all the undignified things that happen in the name of her care, she is still portrayed as a person. Her illness is not played out for the shock factor, or for gratification. She is ill because she is ill. Because she has been failed by the people she holds dear, by men who couldn’t see her as anything more than a sexual object, and by a society that couldn’t accept her. Because she has been subdued, abused, and attacked. And why? Because she decided to become vegetarian? No. Because she is a woman. Could her illness have been avoided if she had been respected? Perhaps not, perhaps it was inevitable. We cannot know. What I do know from reading this book is that these taboos, and oppression, and inability to communicate only harms the most vulnerable. Han Kang is asking people to take another look at society, its violence, its oppression, and reconsider our own relationships.
The Vegetarian is not easy to read. But it is worth reading.
This review also published on my GoodReads.