I read a review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian not so long ago, and was intrigued enough to pick it up. I read it all in one sitting–well, mostly, with only a short break to make and consume dinner with the Little Prince–and, when I had finished, felt as if my interior space, physical as well as psychic, had been violently pummeled and made larger by the experience. The writing, translated by Deborah Smith (who also translated Kang’s Human Acts) is stunning, simple, and incandescent.
The book centers on Yeong-hye, a young Korean wife who has a disturbing dream one night and consequently refuses to eat meat. But that’s a little like saying The Metamorphosis is about bugs. The Vegetarian is densely layered and extremely brutal in the way only true things can be.
The structure of the book is interesting–three interlinked novella-length sections, each told from a different point of view. The first is told Yeong-hye’s husband, the second by her brother-in-law, and the third by Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye. If that seems odd, you’re right–we are given almost nothing from Yeong-hye’s point of view except two very short passages that might or might not detail the “disturbing dream” that sets the entire book in motion. Those passages could be read as her husband Mr Cheong’s imagining what the dream might have been, and that’s only the first of several layers of contrasting interpretation, meaning, and allegory.
At first, The Vegetarian seems to be about the dissolution of Yeong-hye’s marriage, since she not only steadfastly refuses to eat meat but also to wear a bra. She simply Bartleby the Scriveners her way out of both things, simply, quietly refusing to ingest what she doesn’t want to or confine her breasts. Mr Cheong, having married her thinking she was absolutely ordinary Korean housewife material, is alternately ashamed of and infuriated by his inability to “control” her the way Korean society thinks he should and he has come to expect. Mirroring his fury is Yeong-hye’s father, who at one violent family dinner tries to assert a right over what his (until now passive and obedient) daughter will do with her body. Young-hye’s resistance is largely passive and turned inward–since patriarchal strictures hem her in so thoroughly, the only way she can opt out is through refusal and, eventually, self-harm.
The middle third of the book shifts to Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a visual artist who allows her sister In-hye to support him while he’s “blocked” creatively. He’s obsessed with using Yeong-hye’s body as a canvas for one of his works, and the attempt to do so destroys his marriage as well. Paradoxically, his obsession gives us an insight into what Yeong-hye might actually want, although in the following section, we find out she may have still been heavily medicated all during the interactions and thus robbed of even that small measure of consent or agency.
The last third of the book is where everything is truly ripped open and The Vegetarian ascends to the level of a masterpiece. Everything leading up to it has been filtered through male perceptions and a patriarchal search for control of a female body, as well as the violence that ensues on several levels when said female body (not to mention the female owning it) refuses even tacitly. Yeong-hye’s sister visits her in a psychiatric hospital, and the unflinching examination of the stripping away of Yeong-hye’s bodily autonomy by the medical personnel is only part of the agonizing pain. In-hye has done everything “right” and been a model child, wife, and mother, and yet she’s in desperate agony. In-hye is forced to examine her relationship with her sister, the cruelty of their upbringing, and the pressures on women in Korean society. Wondering if her sister’s methods of coping with said cruelty and pressure are any better or less self-destructive than her own is a powerful question, one In-hye can barely bring herself to articulate, much less face.
The complexity of In-hye’s emotions around the caretaking of her sister and her son, the utter betrayal of her husband, and the emotional labor she performs for her family, all hit me right in the solar plexus. Realizing, once I had finished, that I had identified so thoroughly with In-hye that I had come to regard her sister as a symbol just as Mr Cheong and In-hye’s husband had was a nasty shock. Colluding in the strictures that attempt to rob women of bodily autonomy is almost impossible to avoid in most of the world, and Kang deftly performs the almost-impossible trick of implicating everyone, even the reader, in the violence of trying to make Yeong-hye conform. Not only that, but the allegory of the pressures on women in Korean society is so stunning that it also eclipses her, implicating the reader even more thoroughly.
I suspect I have not done this book half the justice I want to. It went straight back on my to-be-read pile for another go once my head has cleared, which is not at all usual. I feel like I have to go back and reread, maybe to try and find Yeong-hye under all the differing perceptions of her, maybe just to marvel at the sheer effortlessness with which Kang piles on and pulls away different layers of meaning. I also want to find Kang’s other work and devour it whole, which will either have to be through interlibrary loan or maybe selling some plasma to pad out my book budget next month.
TL;DR: Simply amazing, completely savage, and well worth buying in hardcover.