March 30, 2016

The Vegetarian - Han Kang

Hogarth, February 2, 2016.

Four Stars

The Vegetarian is a very strange, very beautiful little novel, although the title is a bit misleading. While the main character does adopt an increasingly restrictive diet to control her emotions, the novel (and the character’s choice) is ultimately a study of mental illness – how it manifests in different ways, and how it affects not only one person, but everyone around them. It is also an allegorical novel that explores the boundaries of what’s acceptable in modern day South Korea.

Yeong-Hye has a recurring nightmare that leads her to renounce meat because of her dream’s violent and graphic content. Her vegetarianism soon becomes an extreme form of veganism, in which she feels ill even when she touches the flesh of her husband. Not only does she want to consume plants, she wants to become plantlike – rooted into the earth like a tree. Her choices are seen as an act of subversion in traditional Korean society, and Yeong-Hye soon becomes estranged from her family, and eventually her husband.

Yeong-Hye is imprisoned within her own body, and we find it hard to understand her motivations, especially because she never gets to tell her own story. The first part of the novel is narrated by her husband, who barely understood his wife to begin with, and he seems almost happy to be rid of her after her mental breakdown. In the second and third parts, Yeong-Hye is described by her brother-in-law and sister, respectively. Trapped by mental illness, she is unable to speak for herself. From my perspective, she seemed like a completely different person in each section, causing me to question who she really is. Her husband finds her boring and domestic, while her brother-in-law sees her as erotic and mysterious. Yeong-Hye’s sister finds her weak, yet manipulative, as if she is using her illness just to control everyone around her.

Kang’s writing style is compelling and unusual, but it is also unnerving – Yeong-Hye is truly impossible to know when we hear her voice only filtered through the minds of others. This is a novel in translation, although it doesn’t feel that way. The language is stripped down and deliberate. Everyday situations are made surreal, and interspersed with bizarre sexual encounters. Each section has some temporal overlap, but for the most part, Yeong-Hye’s story moves rapidly forward.

In the end, Yeong-Hye’s mental illness is one of obsession, and it becomes increasingly disturbing to witness. She essentially wishes to remove herself from the food chain, but as she transitions to a more plantlike state, she also loses her identity – and becomes a blank canvas for others to project their own obsessions. I feel like there are also parallels to South Korean politics, but they are somewhat obscure. As odd and unusual as it was, I found The Vegetarian to be an intriguing read, and surprisingly plot-driven for a novel of the mind.

I received this novel from Hogarth and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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