This slim novel is, to me, fiction at its best: it fascinates, shocks, elicits sympathy, and well written (and expertly translated). Written by a Korean author, Han Kang, The Vegetarian was a new reading experience for me in that didn’t remind me of any other books I have read, nor the author’s style didn’t remind me of any other author’s.
It is a book that can be read on different levels, but the basic story is about a South Korean woman who turns vegetarian. Yeong-he is a bored, dutiful wife to an ordinary man, an office worker with humble ambitions. Their marriage is ‘normal’, with Yeong-he playing the expected role of a subservient wife until she explodes into the rebellious act of becoming a vegetarian and throwing all meat outtheir freezer. She offers no explanation to her husband other than ‘I had a dream’, although she never gives him the details of this disturbing bloody dream. The repercussions of her decision to give up meat ripple throughout her family leading to acts of betrayal, violence and tragedy.
The book is told in three parts, the first in the voice of Yeong-he’s husband who is mortified by his wife’s deviant behaviour that becomes more bizarre over time; he watches her starve herself as she eats only plants, and act inappropriately in front of his business colleagues. The second is told from her brother-in-law’s point of view, an artist who becomes obsessed with her body, and with whom she has a disturbing sexually-charged relationship. Her sister tells the third part of the story, by which time she has become Yeong-he’s sole carer and watches as Yeong-he fades away into anorexia and madness.
This is Han Kang’s first book to be translated into English, and it provides an insight into a restrictive Asian culture in which women are expected to behave in a certain subservient way. It is a book about fantasy , dreaming, and madness,of suffering and grief, and ultimately of escape from one’s place in the world.