On My Bookshelf – The Vegetarian

The past two weeks have been super packed. I flew into JFK on July 9th, staying for a quick day in Connecticut before turning around and busing to DC to start working. A few days later, I was up in Jersey for a friend’s birthday – almost fifty hours of travel in the course of a week. I’ve been getting more into podcasts recently, what with all of the travel and now, commuting in from Virginia every morning, but nothing beats the feel of a new book in your hands. That’s where The Vegetarian comes in. I picked it up from Bridge Street Books in Georgetown the day I got back, and although it’s a very short read, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

It’s not a pleasant read. From South Korean author Han Kang, The Vegetarian is a tale of defiance and insanity, as a young wife begins having bloody dreams and gives up eating meat to quell them. This act of independence triggers the haunting events of the book, which are described by three narrators affected by Yeong-hye’s decision. The first section of the book is told by Yeong-hye’s husband, who sees his otherwise bland wife’s break from convention as a threat to his carefully ordered life. As Yeong-hye’s aversion to meat impinges more on her husband’s status quo, he involves her traditional family in forcing her into submission, with disastrous results.

The second part of the book is told from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a washed-up artist. He becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye’s body, dreaming of filming her nakedness for his magnum opus. When his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister, walks in on them, the narration switches to her point of view, as she watches her marriage crumble and her sister’s mental health deteriorate. Soon, Yeong-hye is hospitalized and diagnosed with anorexia as she ceases to eat anything at all. Through it all, her sister stands by her, even as Yeong-hye’s husband leaves her and the rest of her family abandons her. The book concludes in the only way it can: as her sister tries to convince her to live, Yeong-hye replies, “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

The Vegetarian has been described as Kafkaesque. That’s a descriptor I usually don’t like, but I feel that it is quite apt in this case, as the novel deftly captures both Kafka’s twisted humor and dark claustrophobia. Indeed, the first section of The Vegetarian is surprisingly funny, as her husband dryly narrates his boring life and his own shortcomings. But Yeong-hye’s increasingly strange actions, and her gradual alienation from everyone in her life, are anything but funny. Instead, Kang constructs a nightmare world where dreams hold more sway than reality and tradition must transcend free will, even by destroying it.

Kang’s decision to avoid narrating the novel from Yeong-hye’s perspective, save from a few horrifying dream sequences, is a unique choice that emphasizes the novel’s theme of devastating misunderstandings. Without literally being able to see things from Yeong-hye’s point of view, we readers are in the dark about her true mental state, just as her family members are. The novel’s plant imagery pervades every aspect of the story, at once adding color to the darkness while making its conclusion visceral and emotionally draining. It’s hard to recommend The Vegetarian without sounding mildly deranged, but it is a beautiful work that serves as an allegory for woman’s position both in modern-day Korea, and in the world at large. Viewed separately and wholly as a maid, a sexual object, and a source of shame by three close family members, Yeong-hye is never allowed to be a person, and that is the true nightmare.

Purchase a copy on Amazon, or at your local book store.

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