Quote of the book: “Perhaps this is all a kind of dream.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the Man Booker International prize in 2016 and so jumped up to the top of my immediate reading list. It is quite short read at 183 pages but the deeply unsettling nature of the story stays with you far beyond the brief reading time.
The novel is laid out like a tragic stage play with three separate acts and each act offers a different perspective on the unusual and unfortunate character that is Yeong-Hye. Yeong-Hye basically wakes from a dream one night and decides there and then to remove meat and all that it entails from her fridge, freezer and life forever more. Early in the novel, little is hinted at how this one decision sets in motion a character unravelling of huge proportions.
Yeong-Hye’s husband, artistic brother-in-law and sensible older sister offer us the viewpoints into this dramatic metamorphosis and it is remarkable that in the end we leave the novel wondering who is actually more mad, Yeong-Hye herself or those who have observed her become effectively an empty human shell.
To say that this novel was provocative would undersell it. Early on in play, I was shocked by how Yeong-Hye’s simple decision affected those around her in the context of what seems to be typical Korean culture. Not eating meat seems to bring shame on her, her husband and her family. It is remarkable to read how societal problems manifest in outward hatred and disgust at her innocuous decision to eat only her greens.
The novel takes a twist when it becomes darkly erotic as we are drawn into the world of artistic videography. The age old debate regarding the fine line between artistic genius and downright madness comes about when Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law becomes fascinated the Mongolian Mark on her back. It becomes clear to see that his unnerving alliance with our Vegetarian can only end in disaster and this sets the tone for the story’s bleak finale.
The novel concludes with Yeong-Hye’s inexplicable and mad decision to commit to her Vegetarianism beyond the boundaries of her own humanity. With only her sister left some way on her side, this ending is an uncomfortable read as it studies the themes of self-identity and self-worth. The author’s greatest achievement at the conclusion is that you really do question the concepts of mental stability and fantasy. Which character was living the biggest lie?
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
Not one to leave on the coffee table at work. Readers of A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing and Grief is the Thing with Feathers might enjoy this. It also reminded me of a great little surprise read that I read many years ago called The Earthquake Bird.