Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, describes Yeong-hye’s conversion to vegetarianism from three perspectives. The motivations of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister are different enough that the book feels like three novellas and I’ve split this review accordingly.
1. The Vegetarian
Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help but notice her shoes—the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers—neither fast nor slow, striding nor mincing. (11)
Part I is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband. When Yeong-hye declares herself vegetarian after a series of gory dreams, her husband is irritated. His objection isn’t that she’s throwing out food, but that his common and inconspicuous wife is showing the wrong kind of pluck. She firmly refuses to touch or eat meat and offers no explanation other than her dreams.
It’s satisfying to watch Yeong-hye stand up to her husband. His initial befuddlement is ridiculous, like something from a sitcom, but it’s not funny. His thoughts and perceived humiliations indicate that he’s never seen her as a person deserving of anything. He looks at her newfound vegetarianism as though his household appliance has developed a fault.
The sense of unease that eventually erupts into violence is stunningly written. The sparse language adds to the mood. It’s stripped down and matter-of-fact, though food and Yeong-hye’s dreams pack visceral detail. As I read, I thought how I would not recommend this book to vegetarian friends.
2. Mongolian Mark
He exited the auditorium and crossed the foyer, studying the now-obsolete performance posters. He’d been in a bookshop in the city center when he’d happened upon one of the posters, the sight of which sent a shiver through his body. Worried that he might have missed the last performance, he’d hurriedly phoned the theater and made a reservation. On the poster, men and women sat displaying their naked backs, which were covered from the napes of their necks right down to their bottoms with flowers, coiling stems and thickly overlapping petals, painted on in red and blue. Looking at them he felt afraid, excited, and somehow oppressed. He couldn’t believe that the image that had obsessed him for almost a year now had also been dreamed up by someone else—the choreographer—someone, moreover, whom he’d never even heard of. Was that image really about to unfold in front of him, just as he’d dreamed it? (63-64)
Part 2 follows Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law and his strange desires. He is excited to learn that Yeong-hye has a birthmark, a Mongolian mark, on her backside. In his mind, this blemish blooms into flowers and he asks to paint flowers on her naked body and film the finished work. He’s an artist, though he doesn’t seem like a particularly good one. (Disclosure: Other than Rothko, I’m not into modern art.) After the conclusion of the first part, the reader is keen to know Yeong-hye’s mindset, but this section shows her to be more quiet and withdrawn than ever.
At first, it’s not clear whether she goes along with her brother-in-law because she’s become so passive or whether there’s anything in it for her. He ups his request to filming her with a male model, also painted. He hopes they’ll have sex spontaneously when he turns on the camera. He says it’s not porn. I say it’s bad art. Either way, the change in tone from the first section is jarring and bizarre. When the chapter begins, the reader asks, “Who is this man? What does he want. Wait, what does he want??”
The sex in this chapter is more about flora than fauna and it’s heavily stylized. I used to skim Cosmo to chuckle at the bad sex advice (there are places you don’t want a whole bunch of sugar). Reading this section, all I could think about was how there are places I don’t want paint. Is that the point? Absolutely not. It all means something, I’m sure, like all that non-Rothko modern art. The last scene is great, though—hang in for that.
3. Flaming Trees
Her eyes glimmer briefly; the bus she has been waiting for has appeared in the distance. She steps down into the road. She watches as the bus, which had been tearing along at a great pace, slows down.
“You’re going to Ch’ukseong Physchiatric Hospital, right?” (129)
The third section kicks off another tonal shift. The first part was very physical; it was about the body, about food, and dissolved into physical violations. The second was fantasy-based and offered no insight into Yeong-hye. The third takes place inside an asylum as Yeong-hye’s sister begs her to eat. Yeong-hye believes she only needs air, water, and sun, because she’s a tree—or becoming a tree—or…?
There is so much symbolism and metaphor in this book that it wouldn’t have surprised me if Yeong-hye literally turned into a tree. Alternately, it would be just like this book to feature mental illness in a horrible, unflinching way complete with restraints and feeding tubes. I kept reading because I wasn’t sure which conclusion was coming. I also held off from judging Yeong-hye as mentally ill even though she’s clearly having severe problems from not eating.
Overall, it sticks with me that there’s no section from Yeong-hye’s perspective. Her pain and distress are caused by other people imposing their expectations, desires, and beliefs onto her mind and body. No character ever treats her as a full person. It adds another layer of silence that not even the reader can know her. If the goal of the book is to unsettle the reader, this structure does its job. In the end, the book isn’t even about vegetarianism. How I feel about it changes when I consider possible angles of Yeong-hye’s perspective.
I’m not sure how to rate this book. Technically, it’s very good. Its purposeful and measured tone makes every nuance feel intentional. If the writing were less skillful, I would dismiss this book as pretentious, as taking on too many issues. I’d give the first part a 4.9 and the rest a 3.0.
Overall: 4.6 The first section is very strong. Also, I am easily sold on books that are unique.
Translation: Read it, but don’t expect to have any fun.