The Vegetarian (2007) by Han Kang is remarkable. Hang was the first South Korean author to win the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. She was awarded the honour for this book. Strap yourselves in because even though the entire novel is less than 200 pages, it has so much jam-packed in there and it took me a few days just to finish sorting through all the turmoil it left in my soul. I tried to do my best reviewing this with as few spoilers as possible, but honestly even with a couple of spoilers I think reading the book will be a riveting experience.
“For some reason I found myself unable to touch her. I didn’t even want to reach out to her with words”
This book is dark and twisted, convoluted, but it will make you FEEL things.
It’s both insane and incredible. It’s slow and so quiet but creepy and eerie – like when you call out a question into a dark room. You know, when you expect someone to be inside and you open the door and call out to them before realising that no one is there, and suddenly for a split second you wonder if the emptiness will call back out to you. Even though it’s preposterous. But that one moment of quiet, ludicrous panic is, I think, a similar feeling. It’s not all out horror, but it’s a quick shiver down your spine that you brush off but some of it lingers and sticks like silky strands of spider webs.
This book has suicide attempts, marital rape, affairs – but also art, family and loyalty.
What’s interesting is that the protagonist is a woman, but the story is told in three parts by the people around her, her husband, brother in law and then finally her sister.
Part 1 – POV of the husband
This chapter really riled me up. All my quasi-feminist senses were tingling. The way the husband reacts to his wife’s sudden changes isn’t even the main issue, his entire reason for selecting her as a spouse is wrong – and unfortunately all too common. I live in a region where men do not marry for love, in fact, they might actively avoid marrying the woman they love for the simple reason that she allowed herself to love him before marriage.
“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 sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done”
The husband never tried to understand his wife, and didn’t even realise that he failed to know her so long as she served him. It’s alwayssss about the penis. He even blamed her for the guilt he felt over raping her.
Part 2 – POV of the brother in law
I’m surprised that perspectives of a woman from a male point of view could be so powerful. Chapter two was actually my favourite and was told from the pov of the brother in law. The beginning once more set off all my womanly alarms. It proved once again that husbands never know or are satisfied with their own wives, they prefer to covet their neighbours’ wives. Yeong-hye’s husband wanted the domestic plump older sister, while the sister’s husband wanted Yeong-hye. What drove me crazy is that he resented his wife’s “goodness”, and dutifulness and mistook it for happiness.
“She was even grateful that he let her take on so much responsibility, running a business as well as a household, without so much as a word of complaint”
This quote was infuriating. UMM SHE MIGHT AS WELL JUST BE A SINGLE MOTHER! He just dumped the responsibilities on her and because she did it without complaint he assumed that she LIKES it. Is this what men tell themselves? YES IT IS.
“He was becoming divided against himself. Was he a normal human being? More than that, a moral human being? A strong human being, able to control his own impulses? In the end. he found himself unable to claim with any certainty that he knew the answers to these questions, though he’d been so sure before”
But this chapter was a very powerful tool. It really made us question ourselves. It suggests that we only truly know ourselves when we become tested by some obstacle or temptation. Do we really know our limits while we placidly move through our day-to-day fumbling?
“He couldn’t tell what these tears meant – pain, pleasure, passion, disgust, or some inscrutable loneliness that she would have been no more able to explain than he would have been to understand. He didn’t know”
This chapter, to me, seemed to be imbued in dark magic, blood magic. Even though it had no aspect that was particularly unrealistic, it just seemed to sweep you up into the madness.
“Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time”
Part 3: POV of the sister
Ing-hye’s chapter is the most realistic of the three but is still shrouded in memory and questionable chronology. The air of mystery floats throughout the book and time moves fast then slow then turns back on itself and then forges forward again. This was applied throughout the story.
“All of a sudden, she realizes how blase she’s become when it comes to the mentally ill. In fact, after all these visits to the hopsital, sometimes it’s the tranquil streets filled with so called ‘normal’ people that end up seeming strange”
The issue of mental health is a hot topic these days, with lots of people being urged to check on their friends. Shows like 13 Reasons Why have shone a light on it, as well as the recent suicide of Kate Spade. This chapter fits in that same vein, with Yeong-hye’s mental state. The protagonist suffers a mixture of anorexia, the lack of desire to live and sever schizophrenia. I like the point of view of the family member, the sibling who feels a strong need to save her, who thinks of all the choices she made lightly, who struggles with anger and frustration and love and despair at seeing a loved one go through this.
“She wants to yell right into her sister’s ear: What are you doing? Are you listening to me? Do you want to die? Do you really want to die? Dazed, she examines the hot anger that is boiling up inside her like spume”.
This chapter again made us ask ourselves .. How close are we all to letting go of our sanity, our morals, our loved ones and our lives?
I loved this book. I loved how one person’s unraveling can ricochet off onto the lives of everyone around them.
“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm… She was nothing but a child who had never lived”.
Follow up reading material:
The New Yorker discusses her body of work and issues of translation
This interview with the author in The Guardian