It seems apt to be posting a review (which I meant to post last week) about this novel at a time when the idea of eating anymore meat makes me feel slightly queasy post Christmas dining like a loon. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a book I have had on my shelves since this time last year, however the buzz and word of mouth praise around it had been building and building. Then when a copy of her next novel to be translated (again by Deborah Smith) Human Acts landed through my letter box I was reminded that I needed to get a wriggle on and read the first, erm, first.
When The Vegetarian opens we are taken into the rather contented, safe and traditional world (as he sees it) of Mr Cheong. He describes how he met his wife, Yeong-hye, and fell for her not because of love but because she was basically very average, quite unremarkable and wouldn’t threaten his life or lifestyle. Okay, so she didn’t wear a bra which was rather shocking but nothing too radical, she would be a good ‘wife’ to him. That is until a few nights ago when he is awakened to his wife getting all the meat out the fridge and freezer, throwing it away and declaring that from now on she is a vegetarian. Her reason? All she will say to him is that she has had a dream and from there the novel starts to spiral, first with Mr Cheong (with a small detour to his shocked and appalled colleagues) and then Yeong-hye’s immediate family reacting badly, a reaction – when her father tried to force feed her pork – which is the start of a real change in Yeong-hye’s life and those close to her.
People turn vegetarian for all sorts of reasons: to try and alter their genetic predispositions towards certain allergies, for example, or else because it’s seen as more environmentally friendly not to eat meat. Of course, Buddhist priests who have taken certain vows are morally obliged not to participate in the destruction of life, but surely not even impressionable young girls take it quite that far. As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.
I don’t want to give too much away, I never do, yet I will need to give a few additional teasers to really get into the heart of why I loved the book and also the way it was written, structured and stunningly translated by Deborah Smith. The Vegetarian is a book in three parts, which were originally three separate novellas about several stages in Yeong-hye’s life. What is really interesting is that none of them are told by Yeong-hye herself. Firstly we have the story told by her husband from the lead up to the announcement of her vegetarianism and to the family dinner where it all unravels. In the second section we switch to the viewpoint of her brother in law as he becomes erotically obsessed with his sister in law and believes she will be part of his next great art work. The third is told through her sister as she visits Yeong-hye who is residing in an institution after a breakdown.
There was much I loved about the way in which this works for a reader. As we read on we gain insights and glimpses into the society in Korea, what it finds acceptable and inacceptable and what your role within that society is deemed to be. Yeong-hye is meant to be the perfect wife, the perfect sister, the perfect daughter, the perfect muse. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian, I say that flippantly because here in the UK it is a simple act, conspires to a full breakdown not only of Yeong-hye herself but of those close to her and even those who have only met her a few times and/or have to interact with her.
It is not just people and their roles or their expectations that Kang is looking at either. In the first part Mr Cheong looks at his career, the corporate world and the traditional roles of marriage and the expectation of each spouse. In the second part we look at the art world, the creative, the erotic and the role of desire (in good and bad ways) and society’s views on sex in and outside of a marriage. Thirdly we see society’s attitudes to mental health, and the health care system as it stands, which of course by its very nature defies ‘the norm’ or what is deemed acceptable behaviour. This last section I found incredibly powerful. Pressure and judgement is everywhere, one act can have major reverberations and one small fracture in a family can cause complete wreckage, whereupon who is left to pick up the pieces, if anyone wants to.
‘Ah, you’re visiting today?’
The woman is Hee-joo, how is receiving treatment for alcoholism and hypomania. Her body is stout but her round eyes give her a sweet look, and her voice is always somewhat hoarse. In this hospital, the patients who are in good control of their faculties look after those with more acute psychological problems, and receive a little pocket money in return; when Yeong-hye had grown difficult to manage, refusing point blank to eat, she had come under the care of Hee-joo.
It actually turns out that Yeong-hye is not the small act that lead to this, in a way is a case of her using some form of control to deal with another act from her past, which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read it because it is incredibly powerful, from a single line, when the penny drops. I was left feeling very numb for sometime afterwards. I will say no more on this part of the book, other than it is superbly, superbly done showing the power of Han Kang’s writing and Deborah Smith’s marvellous translation from the original Korean.
Speaking more of the writing, to avoid any spoilers, not a line is wasted in this book; it is precise, beautiful and quite searing. Kang manages to create scenes, landscapes and sections of society and the culture around it effortlessly – let us not forget this is a slim volume even made up of three novellas. Her triumph in The Vegetarian though is the creation of Yeong-hye and her story. Yeong-hye is at once a complete individual and also a symbol of many, many women and the pressure and expectation that is put on them. She speaks for no one and yet everyone, and yet she also never speaks. Her family, society and everyone else does the talking for her and yet somehow Kang makes these characters see her from only their viewpoint yet the reader is given her fully formed. The only things we ever hear from her are a few small sections from her dreams/nightmares and I think we all know what Kang is trying to say with this.
Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick struck with great blood-red gashes of meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin.
If I am making this book sound to heavy it is honestly not, which is also what is so brilliant about it. There are some very funny, magical, titillating and sexy moments in the book amongst the thought provoking and questioning layers throughout. You can also just read this as being a book about a woman who decides to stop eating meat and become a plant. Yet The Vegetarian is so, so, so much more than that. It is a book that has imprinted itself on my brain and one I will be recommending to anyone and everyone, it is certainly one of my books of the year. I cannot wait to read Human Acts which I have on my bedside table waiting for the first week of January when I will devour it. If you haven’t read The Vegetarian yet I seriously recommend you do and will be reminding you so again in a few days – yes, it is one of my books of the year!