04 February 2016
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
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.
A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, The Vegetarian is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.
I don't know if I can distill into words the experience of reading this book. This was a vivid, intense one-sitting read. The line between reality and distortion kept shifting. Is mental illness at the root of Yeong-hye's behavior? What about the brother-in-law? Does it spread? Three linked novella-like chapters constantly re-framed why Yeong-hye has stopped eating meat and also commented on societal expectations (I think I missed a few deeper points because I'm not familiar with Korean cultural norms as Korean readers certainly would, but it definitely didn't detract). We are never given a portion of the narrative that is explicitly from Yeong-hye's perspective. We get snippets of dreams or visions, but no complete perspective so she is always presented through other characters.
The translation is excellent - shout-out to the translator Deborah Smith.
Dear FTC: I started with a DRC of this novel via Edelweiss and switched to a library copy.