Summary from Goodreads:
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.
Throughout 2016, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian took the literary world by storm, eventually winning the Man Booker International Prize as well as nearly uncountable positive reviews and accolades. This novella, first published in Korean in 2007, is about the horrifying/tragic/bizarre events that happen after a woman decides to become a vegetarian. As always, it’s difficult to say when a book has been translated, but my overall impression is that the text is both imaginative and well-written, with a lot of depth behind its truly unusual storyline.
The book is divided into three sections, and each section introduces a new narrator (and thus a new perspective on the eponymous vegetarian) and a new time period. This results in a sort of triptych effect, where The Vegetarian offers three very distinct viewpoints of its subject, the character Yeong-hye. For the majority of the book, this technique seemed to work quite well. The first section, narrated by Yeong-hye’s entitled, arguably misogynistic husband, introduced the protagonist and her conflict quite well. The second section, narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, journeyed far, far into the surreal and bizarrely sexual. Yet it was the third section, narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister, where the story failed—and from reading other reviews, I know that many other readers felt similarly. This third section was tired and slow, lacking the nightmarish atmosphere of the first two-thirds of the book. It didn’t seem to fit, and was a disappointing conclusion to what had been, up until then, a very good book.
Moving on from the story structure to the content, I think a discussion of what The Vegetarian is about will be interesting, because this is very much the sort of story that gives different readers different things. What’s interesting to me is that Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism could be (and has been) argued as a protest against not only society’s cruelty, but also against paternalistic body policing. First Yeong-hye’s husband, then her father, are horrified and outraged by her choices, and attempt to change her mind. First this takes shape in simple coercion, but eventually leads to a violent scene when Yeong-hye is beaten, pinned down, and her father attempts to force-feed her meat, which she refuses. The final scenes of the book then see this character institutionalized while her (male) doctors insist that she do as they tell her.
Not only, then, do we see Yeong-hye’s rejection of meat (and, eventually, all food in its entirety) as a way in which she is able to distance herself from human cruelty and destruction, but also as a means of rebelling against the patriarchy. Vegetarianism as feminism—it’s not something I would have necessarily expected to find in this book, but I feel that in this case, the support is there for that argument.
In summary, then, while I cannot say that The Vegetarian is necessarily the best book I’ve ever read, I found that it was not only deliciously bizarre, but also surprisingly thought-provoking. Han Kang’s surreal landscape is certainly not something that exists in the real world, but it nevertheless still contains truths and motifs that exist in “real life”. It is a book worth reading not only because of its strange imagery, but because of its strange message, which, as I said, might vary from reader to reader.