We turn to South Korea for today’s installment of my Reading the World project. The Vegetarian (2007) is the second of Han Kang’s books which I’ve read to date, and is again translated by Deborah Smith. It also won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. On reflection, I must say that I far preferred Human Acts (you can read my review of it here). That said, The Vegetarian is undoubtedly a novel full of complexities, and makes for an incredibly interesting reading choice.
The Vegetarian is a book which I’m sure most of you will have heard of, if not read; the vast majority of my Goodreads friends, for instance, have either loved or very much enjoyed this. It is billed both as a ‘disturbing and thrilling psychological drama about taboo, desire, rebellion and fantasy’, and as a ‘darkly beautiful modern classic about rebellion, eroticism and the female body. One of the most extraordinary books you will ever read.’ A vast claim indeed, and whilst I’ve not quite read anything like The Vegetarian before, I’m not sure I’d put it up there with the pinnacle of extraordinary novels I’ve read over my lifetime thus far.
Let us discuss the plot, then. The marriage of Yeong-hye and her husband, Mr Cheong, is ‘interrupted’ when she ‘commits a shocking act of submission: she refuses to eat meat’ and becomes a vegetarian, something not widely accepted in South Korean culture. The novel’s opening section caught my interest; in a way, we are given the dual perspectives of both Mr Cheong, whose narrative is more traditional, and Yeong-hye, who describes horrific dreamscapes, in which she has seen bloodied corpses and the like, in italicised text. Mr Cheong narrates the action, for want of a better phrase. He is baffled at his wife’s decision to become a vegetarian, and furious that she refuses to cook meat for him. Along with Yeong-hye’s parents, he does everything within his power to try and reverse her decision. The second section of The Vegetarian uses a third person voice, and follows Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who becomes fixated on the idea of painting flowers onto naked bodies, culminating in an erotic art film of sorts. The final part is told by her sister, In-hye.
Mr Cheong is incredibly misogynistic. Not only does he refuse to take his wife seriously at any point, but he actually turns to physically harming her when he does not get his own way. When she tells him that the meat smell upon his skin repulses her and she cannot copulate with him, he rapes her.
Yeong-hye is a complex character construction. Throughout, I felt as though she was the most realistic creation within the book; the others paled a little in comparison, particularly as I struggled to believe that rational adults would behave as they sometimes did; for instance, the scene in which Yeong-hye’s father tries to force feed her meat, thinking that it will change her mind. This particular scene sent shivers down my spine, and I felt such pangs of compassion for our protagonist.
The passage of time has been well executed, and the use of different perspectives do work well as a whole. My only qualm is that we are never fully given Yeong-hye’s voice; we learn about her through other characters, and know a little of what is in her head due to the nightmares we are given glimpses of. I believe that The Vegetarian would have been far more psychologically chilling had it partially, or perhaps entirely, been narrated from her point of view. She spends time in an institution, but her experiences there are barely documented.
At times, The Vegetarian is quite gorily matter-of-fact. Mr Cheong, for example, describes the following: ‘I’d seen my mother-in-law gut fish, and my wife and her sister were both perfectly competent when it came to hacking a chicken to pieces with a butcher’s cleaver. I’d always liked my wife’s earthy vitality, the way she would catch cockroaches by smacking them with the palm of her hand. She really had been the most ordinary woman in the world’. Hmm. Her transformation from placid wife to a headstrong woman in control of her own diet is believable, and very well done; there is a definite change to her, and reasons for it.
The Vegetarian is a harrowing read, and not one for the faint of heart. To me, it did not feel as consistent as Human Acts; there were a few instances within the novel where I was a little bored with proceedings, and felt that details were being repeated unnecessarily. The novel comes in waves, though; just as I was beginning to find it a little predictable, something would happen which would render the next few pages compelling and difficult to put down. In places, The Vegetarian is just as chilling as Human Acts, and its storyline is perhaps more memorable, but it just didn’t grip me in the same way. Overarchingly, however, its message is powerful; never underestimate a woman when she has made up her mind.