What is the difference between living and enduring? What is life when it is controlled by someone external to yourself? What is reality and how do we know that the place our physical being resides in is it? Among many other esoteric questions, Han Kang tackles these in her novel The Vegetarian. Addressing issues of abuse and the effects of trauma on the human psyche, Kang provides a unique glimpse into the convergence between sanity and insanity.
At the beginning of the novel, Yeong-hye has just become a vegetarian. Living in a very patriarchal Korea, Yeong-hye is berated by her husband for not eating meat herself or cooking it for him. The most interesting aspect of the first section of Kang’s novel is the fact that it is not told from Yeong-hye’s perspective, but from her abusive and oblivious husband Cheong. The reader feels even more intensely for Yeong-hye’s plight in hearing the misogynistic remarks that come from Cheong’s mouth. The skewed lens through which he views his wife as an object only serves to fuel the rampant anger we build for Yeong-hye.
The next section is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a washed up artist who when we first meet him is imbued with the passion to pursue a new artistic project: that of painting his sister-in-law in flowers and filming erotic visions of her. The reader is once again privy to the working of the patriarchal mind. In viewing the objectification of both Yeong-hye and her sister In-hye, the horror only continues.
Throughout the course of the novel Yeong-hye struggles with anorexia and eventually appears to be losing her sanity. The men around her can’t fathom why she is going to such great lengths to reclaim her body and herself: it is only her sister who can relate in some distant sense to the horrors that Yeong-hye has experienced. The final portion of the novel is told from In-hye’s perspective, and in accessing the female mind, we are also granted better access to Yeong-hye herself. In seeing herself in Yeong-hye, In-hye begins to question the very fabric of reality and the lines between lucidity and insanity.
The Vegetarian is a tragic and beautiful tale of the terror that abuse brings, and the lengths to which the abused will go to assert their power
The Vegetarian was original published in 2007, but was recently translated to English and published by Hogarth Press in 2015. You can purchase a copy of The Vegetarian at your local bookstore.
FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.