“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang – review

Before this review gets underway I should say that it does contain a few spoilers.  I always try really hard to write my reviews without them, but it was just too hard to even begin explaining this complex novel without giving something away!  If you don’t mind that, then read on…

So, how to explain the weirdness that is “The Vegetarian”?  It’s a book that I can’t compare to any other I’ve read, a unique journey into the un-probed recesses of the psyche that shocks, saddens, disturbs and bemuses in by turns.  It comprises three sections, almost like three acts of a play, each one of which is told from the point of view of a different character in the story (although not always in the first person).  As the acts unfold, new layers are added that force the reader to re-evaluate events that have gone before – the issue being that we were never sure how to interpret events to begin with, such is their strangeness and ambiguity.

The novel begins as Yeong-hye decides to become vegetarian.  This being Korea, such a decision is an almost unheard of break from social norms and is greeted with a mixture of disbelief, bewilderment and outrage by members of her family.  Most peculiar of all, though, is that her reason for suddenly shunning all meat is a dream, an explanation that sounds like lunacy to those around her.  The rationale behind her turn of mind never becomes completely clear to us either; intermittently throughout this first act we find ourselves in Yeong-hye’s head, but her voice is a stream of consciousness journey through sensations and visceral images, not explanations.  We see blood, animal skulls and flashes of ambiguous violence, all of which pass in an instant and leave us wondering: where have all these macabre mental images come from?  And how do they connect to this abrupt, mysterious vegetarianism?  There are no answers provided – yet.  But we do see real and shocking violence erupting in Yeong-hye’s present, real life; the poor woman’s treatment at the hands of those you would expect to care for her leaves us feeling incredibly uncomfortable.

Then suddenly, it’s on to part two.  At the time of reading I found it a bit of an unexpected, and somewhat unwelcome, jolt to move on to another character and a completely new part of the story before the questions of the first part had been answered; hang in there though, because when you’ve got to the end of the book and are able to look back on all three chapters together, the separate sections feel much more cohesive than they do while you’re actually reading them.  Whereas I came away with the impression that part one is all about supressed trauma, part two is about supressed desire – supressed temporarily that is!  This section focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother in law, who we came across fleetingly in the first chapter.  He’s an artist, and after his sister in law converts to vegetarianism he becomes more and more obsessed with her sexually, a fantasy that turns into a desire to use her in a piece of erotic performance art.  It’s just as strange and unsettling as the first episode, but in a very different way.  After the earlier drama, violence and mental collapse of the bullied, victimised vegetarian, when Yeong-hye appears in this chapter she is eerily passive.  No longer privy to her inner thoughts, it almost seems to the reader as if she doesn’t have any.  Whether she is genuinely numb, an empty shell drained of emotion by the trauma she’s suffered, or whether her exterior blankness is merely a product of how others (predominantly men) see her we do not know.  She could be a metaphor for the invisible woman who has been rendered meaningless by a male-dominated society, or she could simply be an isolated individual who has become a victim of her own mind.  Either way, the role she takes in the increasingly bizarre imagination of her brother in law is no less troubling than the abuse she endured before.

The final act is in many ways the most straightforward of them all, and it’s the one I felt most at ease reading.  The writing loses a lot of its earlier dreamlike quality ad becomes more storytelling in its style.  Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital, her sister in law In-hye is separated from her artist husband, and we finally start to find out what’s driven the troubled vegetarian from giving up meat to a state of near madness.  In-hye too, in between emotionally draining visits to her sister, is re-evaluating her own life and feelings.  Is it significant that it’s only now, when removed from the influence and dominance of men, that the two sisters are able to work towards achieving emotional peace?  It certainly seemed that way to me; I felt very much that the whole novel is about the control that society allows men to have over women, both explicitly and tacitly.  Yeong-hye ends the novel wanting to stop being human and to connect herself to the earth, living as a tree does – the ultimate extension of the vegetarianism that started the whole story.  It could be insanity, or it could be the ultimate means of gaining control in a life where others have constantly tried to take it away from her.

What the book is trying to say is a question that there is perhaps no need to answer.  The act of reading it in itself was an incredibly intense experience that I suspect will differ greatly between every individual who picks it up.  It’s no bad thing to be shaken out of your reading comfort zone every now and then, and this novel certainly achieved that for me.  Don’t read it for a realistic story with a satisfying conclusion, but do read it for an intellectual and emotional thrill-ride.  It’s different – and really quite remarkable.

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