Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Aug 6, 2017

Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.

Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

I remember one time I participated in a blog hop where one of the prompts mentioned seeking out diverse voices, usually cultural. I was a little shocked that a lot of people said, “I don’t seek it out or make a point to find authors with a different point of view from mine.” I think there is a lot of different voices out there that you need to seek out because their voices need to be heard.

One of my friends started up a book club, #milliesbookclub, that would explore Asian American authors and their works. Being Asian American myself (Asian Canadian to be exact), I was extremely interested. For minorities, it can be easy to have your voice drowned out. In general, it’s easy to get lost in the literature industry regardless but it seemed important to intentionally seek out these Asian American authors. So out of this book club, The Vegetarian was chosen.

My first impression of this novel was that it was extremely Murakami-esque. Haruki Murakami almost always features peculiar women and these women almost always serve as some sort of motivator for the male protagonists. Murakami is frequently accused to using the manic pixie dream girl trope again and again and it was a little bit disappointing to see this again in another Asian author.

The male characters in this book were no different from how Murakami portrays his male characters. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is obsessed with her to the point of his destroying his marriage and taking advantage of her mental vulnerability. Yeong-hye’s husband forces himself upon her and selfishly only thinks of how her antics affect him. Yeong-hye’s father was abusive to her for her entire life, even displaying physical aggression towards her in her adult life. It’s no wonder that Yeong-hye retreats inward and pursues the notion that becoming a tree would bring the ultimate state of nirvana.

While I did find Yeong-hye’s passion a little ridiculous and self destructive, I have finally come to the conclusion (with a little bit of help) that it boiled down to a form of escapism and served as a great foil to Yeong-hye’s sister.

It maybe be obvious that Yeong-hye wasn’t so keen on the life that she lived due to all of the not-so-great males she had around her. I still don’t see the significance in becoming a tree but I do love how this demonstrates a positive attribute that Yeong-hye possesses which her sister does not.

Despite everything, Yeong-hye is true to herself. Compared to her sister, she is not a subservient and too obedient woman who is too polite to the point of irritation. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law makes this observation as he wonders why his wife would not lash out at him for his absenteeism in the family and instead becomes a little bit too accommodating. This is also shown when Yeong-hye’s sister has a strong sense of duty towards her son which keeps her from succumbing to her depression whereas Yeong-hye is eager to let go of what little life she has left regardless of her obligations. Yeong-hye is more willing to break conventions as she only answers to herself.

Interestingly enough, most of the other members of the book club didn’t like this novel. I can see why. The male characters are disgusting and abhorrent. The fragile and subservient Asian woman stereotype is tiring. It’s a frustrating read that reminds you that society is pretty much still patriarchal and misogynistic. It isn’t empowering in the slightest, one of the aims the book club was created to begin with. Honestly, it’s the last book that I would ever thing Millie would like to read. However, there was something fascinating about this book that never let me put it down until I finished.

I became invested in Yeong-hye and her sister. I could have skipped all the sections about Yeonh-hye’s husband and brother-in-law easily. These two women wronged by the most important men in their lives struck a chord with me. The book made me want to know what became of the two sisters and how they could possibly rebuild their lives. I wanted to know what really went on their minds while we saw their husband’s points of view and who they really were behind who the men thought they were.

Ultimately, I think Han Kang made the right choice using male narrators for a good portion of the book because it really painted an accurate picture of the situation. However, it feels like she barely scratched the surface with the female characters but there was some sort of sense of redemption for the female characters.

If you can look past the social undertones in the book, I think it would be a good read. Most reviews I’ve seen focused on the oddity and weirdness of the situation and less on the characters, which is fine but you’ll never know how you feel about the book until you read it for yourself.