Friday, June 17, 2016

Review of "The Vegetarian" by Han Kang




I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. Set in South Korea, the story is divided into three parts, each narrated by a different character. The first narrator is Mr. Cheong.

Mr. Cheong is a dull, reserved office worker who wants an ordinary life that doesn't rock the boat. Thus he marries a quiet, average-looking, unambitious woman named Yeong-hye. Yeong-hye's only fault seems to be her refusal to wear a bra, a quirk that Mr. Cheong (more or less) puts up with.

After a frightening blood-drenched dream Yeong-hye abruptly decides to become a vegetarian. This is very unusual in South Korea and has immediate negative consequences: Mr. Cheong is annoyed about the new food regime at home and embarrassed when he and (bra-less) Yeong-hye attend a dinner with his bosses and their wives. Yeong-hye - whose garb is (not so discreetly) eyeballed by the guests - refuses to eat and several wives make disparaging remarks.

Yeong-hye's family is also appalled by her refusal to eat meat. They're critical because she won't knuckle under to her husband's wishes and are concerned about her weight loss and declining health. This leads to a violent scene where Yeong-hye's overbearing father tries to force meat down her throat...an act which ultimately results in Yeong-hye being committed to a mental institution.

Part two of the book starts three years later. Yeong-hye's husband has divorced her and she's now living a quiet life in a small apartment. This section of the story is narrated by Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, the husband of her sister In-hye, a businesswoman who runs a cosmetics store. In-hye is 'grateful' that her husband - a not-too-successful visual artist - 'allows' her to work, take care of the home, and raise their young son while he futzes around and has no income.

The brother-in-law becomes obsessed with the notion that Yeong-hye still has a 'Mongolian mark' - a bluish birthmark that usually fades by puberty. The artist's fetish - and increasing sexual attraction to Yeong-hye - lead him to ask if he can paint her body while making a video. Yeong-hye agrees and is decorated with gorgeous flowers, leaves, and vines. The artist then paints a male colleague in a similar fashion and makes a sensual video of Yeong-hye interacting with the man. When the brother-in-law goes too far his life blows up.

Part three of the book starts some time later, when Yeong-hye is back in a mental institution. She has stopped eating completely and is on the verge of death. This segment of the book is narrated by In-hye. In-hye recalls their childhood, when Yeong-hye was the primary victim of their father's bad temper and physical abuse (not sexual). It's not clear, though, if this is the cause of Yeong-hye's problems. In any case In-hye tries to get her sister to eat, to avoid the dying woman's being transferred to a regular hospital and force-fed. Yeong-hye, however, won't eat a bite. It seems she now thinks she's a tree who can live on sunshine and water. Moreover, Yeong-hye doesn't seem concerned about dying.

And that's about it.

To me this unusual story seems to be about the inferior position of women in South Korean culture; dysfunctional families; artistic obsession; and mental illness. I've seen other reviews, though, that seem to read a lot more into this short book. So.....I don't know. Nevertheless, it's an engaging tale that certainly leaves an impression. Recommended to fans of literary fiction.  


Rating: 3.5 stars

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