Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
The Vegetarian is the story of Yeong Hye, an ordinary South Korean woman. She is a dutiful wife and her married life is fairly run of the mill. But all of this changes when Yeong Hye starts having terrifying blood-filled nightmares. One night, Yeong Hye gets rid of all the meat in the fridge and abruptly stops eating meat. This leads Yeong Hye to disconnect with her family and husband due to their disapproval with her extreme lifestyle choices. Things become worse when her father force-feed her meat. As a result, she attempted suicide and finally led her to a hospital. Her behavior only becomes more erratic from there as she slowly starts to starve herself.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, published in English translation by Deborah Smith, is a contemporary South Korean novella. The story explores the life of a young married woman, Yeong Hye, who suddenly becomes a vegetarian after terrifying nightmares.
Even though Yeong Hye is the protagonist, the story is written from the perspective of the people around her. The readers are forced to view her from the outside, by the people who don’t understand her. The book is split into three parts. The sections, entitled The Vegetarian, Mongolian Mark, and Flaming Trees, reflecting the point of view of her husband, brother-in-law and sister respectively. Although this is a novel about the vegetarianism of the protagonist, its range extends further into the own personal crises and conflicts of her narrating family members.
The title could also trick the readers into thinking that this is a piece about animal rights or the morality of the vegetarianism. I also thought so when I first see the title of the book. Actually, it’s all about mental health, female autonomy, domestic violent, and the patriarchy. The book tracks changes in both Yeong Hye’s body and mind. The deterioration of Yeong Hye’s mental health is difficult and painful to watch as she suffers from both schizophrenia and anorexia.
To be honest, the book wasn’t an easy read for me. The writing style appears more as work of art than work of fiction. Transitions from one part to the other are very abrupt, such that it takes a few pages for me to realize who is speaking. Nonetheless, it is a fine, sophisticated novella with a story that is unpredictable and interesting, and letting the reader to question the nature of human life and cultural etiquette.
Han Kang is the daughter of novelist Han Seung-won. She was born in Kwangju. At the age of 10, moved to Suyuri in Seoul.
Han studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. She began her writing career when one of her poems was featured in the winter issue of the quarterly Literature and Society. She made her official literary debut in the following year when her short story “The Scarlet Anchor” was the winning entry in the daily Seoul Shinmun spring literary contest.
Since then, she has gone on to win the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. As of summer 2013, Han teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts while writing stories and novels.