I wasn’t at all sure that I was going to read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Even when it popped up in review after review on blogs I follow, I still wasn’t sure. Once I began reading it, I still wasn’t sure that I’d even finish it. And now that I’ve read it, I’m still not sure what I think about it. Despite all of that uncertainty, I’m genuinely glad that I read it, and find it one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.
I worried that it might be too disturbing for me to handle. It certainly wasn’t a pleasurable reading experience for me, but it was too strange, too different from the things I normally read, to put down. If I’m honest, the short length (188 pages) helped . As did the fact that I’m almost certain it will be a Tournament of Books pick next year. But the spare elegance of Kang’s writing kept me turning pages.
It’s told in three sections, which were apparently published in South Korea as three novellas. Yeong-hye, a young, married woman is the center of this story, but she does not really get to tell her own tale. There are italicized passages here and there that are probably told from her point of view, but they are infrequent. The first section is told from the point of view of her husband, Mr. Cheong. He’s a real… well, I’m thinking of a crass word to describe him. There is nothing whatsoever appealing about him. He basically married Yeong-hye because she was so unremarkable and demanded so little from him. When she has a terrible dream and decides to becomes a vegetarian, she is rocking his orderly, boring, controlled life. She shocks and angers her family as well, and there is a violent scene at a family dinner that is really hard to read.
The second section is told from her brother-in-law’s point of view, and it’s disturbing in a totally different way. He is sexually obsessed with her, and wants to use her as a model in his video art installation. This section is interesting in that Yeong-hye seems to subvert her brother-in-law’s desires and claim her own power in the midst of his objectification. However, her gradual descent into madness, which has been building throughout the whole novel, is unchecked.
The third section was the strongest for me, the one that finally awakened me emotions and locked me into the flow of the narrative. It’s told from the point of view of her sister, In-hye, and it’s some time later after the events of the second part. Yeong-hye has deteriorated drastically, both mentally and physically, and she is in a mental hospital. We learn more about In-hye and how their family life may have informed each of the sister’s life paths. There is some gorgeous writing in this section, like this passage:
She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.
I was deeply moved by the final section, so much so that it made me reconsider the novel as a whole. I was finally able to push against my discomfort and appreciate what I think this novel is trying to explore. For me, it is about family, and expectations, both familial and societal, especially for women. It’s about choice and desire, how free one person can truly ever be to create the life they want to live, for themselves without hurting or angering or disappointing the people around them. At least that’s what I emerged with from my reading of this bizarre, haunting, remarkable book.
The Vegetarian would make a killer book for your book group – one could talk about it for hours. I’m really glad I read it, even though it was not an easy read.I haven’t yet rated this novel on Goodreads with a star rating. I usually find it pretty easy to assign stars: three for “I liked it,” two for “it was okay,” four for “REALLY good.” I don’t think this is the kind of novel that is suited for that system. It really is something totally of its own, and to give it a star rating would almost diminish its odd terror and beauty.