The Vegetarian has already been so thoroughly acclaimed that it hardly needs my help to spread the word, but I felt compelled to write about this chilling, starkly imaginative novel regardless. Yeong-hye has a terrible dream that causes her to become a vegetarian–setting off a harrowing series of events that irrevocably mark everyone around her, but most especially damage Yeong-hye herself.
You can read my full review below.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
- publisher: Hogarth Press
- publication date: February 2, 2016
- isbn: 978-0-553-44818-4
- length: 192 pages
For an allegory to work, it must also function on a literal level; the reader must always be able to question whether, in fact, it is an allegory at all. The Vegetarian demonstrates this flawlessly. On one hand, it is a novel about the toxic, suffocating effects of sexism. On the other, it is “merely” a novel about a traumatized schizophrenic woman and the many ways her family attempts to contain her.
Both of these threads are equally valid and vibrant, and it’s the interplay between them that gives The Vegetarian its raw, earthy power.
Of course, Han Kang’s poetic wordplay (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith) also contributes; the imagery here is among the most powerful I’ve ever experienced. In one particularly breathtaking scene, the novel’s protagonist, Yeong-hye, is painted entirely with flowers, basking in the sunshine on an art studio floor as if she is photosynthesizing. I wondered–not for a short amount of time–if she really was.
The Vegetarian is actually series of three novellas, told from the perspective of three people who are not Yeong-hye: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, respectively. In the beginning, Yeong-hye is a homemaker, perhaps dimwitted (in the eyes of her husband, at least) but mostly just quiet, and obedient. Her husband laments that she doesn’t always wear a bra; he rejoices that his mediocre wife will never require anything of him but more mediocrity.
Then comes the dream, which triggers both Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism–a surface problem–and her disobedience, which is by far more disturbing to her husband and family. Yeong-hye will no longer be told what to do; she will no longer be dutiful; she will no longer ignore the link between the violence of meat and the violence of men. And that is unforgivable.
The Vegetarian is a horrifyingly violent novel, and if you are squeamish or easily disturbed, then it may not be for you. I am both, however, and still found it a rewarding read, because Kang has found permutations of violence that I’d never imagined before, and in that novelty there is a sort of numbness. Yeong-hye experiences rape by men and then far worse violations by feeding tube; she recounts the gruesome killing of a dog with a dreamy sort of calm; she stands on her head for hours and prays for her crotch to bloom with flowers.
It’s extraordinary and it’s nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.
But for me, at least, the violence was not the most extraordinary part. That honor goes to the empathetic, shrewd, and lingering ways in which the novel addresses mental illness. If you are at all familiar with the symptoms of schizophrenia, you will recognize that Yeong-hye is a classic case, especially in her delusions, odd movements, long silences, and even the age at which her break from reality occurs (schizophrenia most commonly onsets in women during their late 20s).
The word “schizophrenia” means “split brain,” and refers to the way schizophrenics often split from reality, slipping further and further out of touch with the rules that govern our normal world.
And yet–is a woman’s break from a violent and unequal reality that surprising? Might we even consider it a moral and necessary act? The Vegetarian says yes. 5/5 stars.
My copy of The Vegetarian came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.
If you enjoyed this review, you might also enjoy translator Deborah Smith’s excellent essay–“What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation“–that was recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.