Having flirted with the idea of turning towards a vegetarian diet for quite some time now, I was instantly drawn to The Vegetarian. When I was 17, I decided to give up meat for lent, to prove to a friend that I could and would survive for forty days without meat. However, when I got home from school and announced this news to my mother (Chinese), she was horrified. Although the vegetarian movement has grown enormously in the West, it is not wholly accepted in East Asia. This is partly what Han Kang explores in her phenomenal piece, The Vegetarian.
Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
First of all, I have to admit that at first I just didn’t get this book. It was disturbing enough that I kept reading but it wasn’t what I was expecting at all and when I put the book down I was very confused. It wasn’t until after I had done a bit of research and read about what Han Kang was trying to get at that I really began to appreciate all the themes in this story. You’re not supposed to understand everything that happens here and if you go looking for a “right” answer to everything then you’ve missed the point entirely.
Told from three different perspectives, we see Yeong-hye descend into a sort of quiet madness through the eyes of her husband, her best friend and said friend’s husband. Each chapter is very distinct and we get a glimpse at the inner workings of this family that once seemed “normal” from the outside. Kang shows us how our inner demons can haunt us and what happens when they finally break loose. There’s conflict between father and daughter, husband and wife, sister and sister. Through these relationships and conflicts we are given a glimpse into Korean culture. Of course, this book is not representative of all Korean culture (I would be pretty worried if it did), but it certainly makes you aware of some of the stark cultural differences between the East and the West. Being half Chinese myself, I can imagine that turning vegetarian could actually have such a huge impact on your family.
The plot seems a little surreal at times and the writing can be rather abstract. The imagery is disturbing and yet beautiful all at once. Kang weaves together these two notions, completely captivating the reader and compelling you to read on even though alarm bells are ringing at the back of your brain. Reading The Vegetarian almost brings you into a trance-like state, much like the leading character herself, Yeong-hye.
Finally, I must say that The Vegetarian isn’t for the faint hearted or the squeamish. Whilst I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say there are “gory” parts, there were a couple of passages that made my stomach squirm. Make no mistake, this story isn’t the happy story of how a woman moved towards a plant based diet – it is dark, it is disturbing, it is distressing. Kang’s description of the protagonist through the eyes of her narrators is frighteningly compelling and it’s certainly not a book I’ll be forgetting anytime soon.
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