The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Opening sentence: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”
What an engrossing, unsettling little book this was! I didn’t know anything about it, it just caught my eye in the library as I’d had it on my mental TBR list for a while.
Split into three parts (it was actually originally published as three separate novellas in 2007), each is told by a different character, but all centre around their relationship with the vegetarian of the title, Yeong-hye (although, technically she is a vegan as she won’t even eat eggs). Vegetarianism by choice, rather than for health reasons, is seen as unusual in South Korea (or at least in the South Korea of this novel). So, as the opening sentence alludes to, when Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat, she is seen as doing something very strange by her family.
The first part of the book is told by Yeong-hye’s husband. Theirs is hardly a marriage of dreams, he openly admits, ‘the passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground.’ Suffice to say, he does not take her new vegetarianism very well. The second section is from the point of view of her brother-in-law. He is an artist who develops an erotic obsession with Yeong-hye and wants to make her the focus of his latest project. Then, as the story progresses, we are given events as seen through her sister’s eyes. In-hye is a complex character, and by far the most emotive in the book. She is the only person who cares about Yeong-hye’s mental and physical wellbeing and despite her own struggles, always strives to help her sister.
Aside from a few paragraphs of her thoughts in the first section, we don’t get Yeong-hye’s point of view. This is more a look at how her descent into mental illness, while in the grip of an eating disorder, affects those around her as much as herself.
Despite the difficult subjects this book explores, it was effortless to read. Some of the imagery it conjured up was quite gruesome, some was beautiful, but all of it stays in your mind and leaves you thinking about it once you have finished reading. I found this to be a powerful, haunting read that hit home on an emotional, visual and narrative level. Also, look closely at the cover, harmless at first glance, then the unsettling elements come into focus – a perfect representation of the story inside.