TL;DR – a South Korean woman who experiences terrible dreams about animal slaughter decides to stop eating meat. This decision leads to a descent into madness and examines the impacts on those around her.
Yeong-hye has been the dutiful wife to Mr. Cheong and living a life that is routine. This all changes when she decides to abstain from consuming meat after a series of graphic dreams involving killing animals. Her abstinence slowly transforms into the belief that she is actually a tree and soon refuses to eat anything entirely. The degradation of her well-being causes ramifications to those closest to her.
The book is told in three parts. The first part is told from the perspective of Mr. Cheong. The second part is told from Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law (his name never revealed). And the final part is told from Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye.
Review (warning: spoilers)
The winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize is a difficult read. Not because of the translation from Korean to English (Deborah Smith does an astounding job) but because I didn’t encounter anything that I liked.
All my book reviews are rated on enjoyment, and that enjoyment comes from a multitude of factors including character development, writing style, plot and themes. I do not exclude books on genre, nor will I rate a book poorly because of its genre. As with all readers, I do have preferences. I’m drawn more to fantasy/sci-fi and crime/mystery than I am to other genres like sick lit or horror.
The Vegetarian falls into literary fiction and Asian culture genres. The exploration into one particular Korean family, the way they live, and how it all falls apart is insightful and, at times, both horrifying and fascinating. However, it is not so much a story, as it is an indictment on how Asian families fail to support each other when one of them suffers from mental illness. I have read in other reviews that this was not necessarily Han Kang’s intention and that she was thinking more about universal questions surrounding innocence, beauty and violence. However, the story presents a picture that shows clearly the failings of a particular culture and the fault lines that can occur in family units.
None of this means that the book cannot be enjoyable. In fact, the story is effective in evoking images that will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page. The characters are vivid, the extremes in behaviour haunting, and the three perspectives showing different facets of personalities and the choices they make are initially intriguing. All of this lends toward a piece of work that deserves the awards it has won.
The problem for me is that effective does not always equate to enjoyable.
Take Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband, who lives an existence that is nothing short of plain. This is how he wants it. A life without troubles or exuberance. A life of staying in one’s lane and never wanting to experience anything (uplifting or otherwise) in another lane. He chose to marry Yeong-hye on the basis that he thought she would make a wife that would not cause trouble and would allow him to maintain his existence of ordinariness. So, you can imagine the upheaval that is caused to his life style when Yeong-hye stops eating and begins to think she is a tree. He has no sympathy for his wife’s plight (or I didn’t buy into any attempts of sympathy, if anything he wants to be pitied for his wife’s behaviour). He makes one feeble attempt at an intervention by inviting Yeong-hye’s family over, who then proceed to force Yeong-hye to eat, which leads to violent and destructive results. Yeong-hye is hospitalised and Mr. Cheong, now widely taken away from his own lane, decides to leave her and serves her with divorce papers. Real nice… not. I found him to be a despicable character with no redeeming values whatsoever.
Then we have Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. He is a video artist who becomes obsessed with the mentally ill, Yeong-hye, and imagines creating an art video involving two people making love with their bodies covered in painted flowers. He convinces Yeong-hye to participate because she likes the idea of flowers being painted on her naked body (remember she thinks she’s a tree). The brother-in-law hires another artist who agrees to have his body painted in flowers for the video, but the artist leaves when he’s asked to have actual intercourse with Yeong-hye. This leads to the brother-in-law having flowers painted on himself and filming a sexually explicit video with Yeong-hye. It’s essentially rape of a mentally ill woman. Again, another character that has no redeeming values even though, from his perspective, he tries to convince you his actions are reasonable. Reality check, it’s not. Not even close.
This leads to In-hye, the sister, who discovers the video and calls the authorities to arrest her husband. In the process, Yeong-hye is placed in a mental hospital. In-hye is the only character of redeeming value. She is also the only family member that seeks to help Yeong-hye (none of the other family, not even the parents, visit her in hospital). In-hye is the suffering character, she is now a single mother, trying to take care of her son as well as her mentally ill sister. She experiences her own mental breakdown and the story ends with no resolution.
The no resolution ending is probably what you would expect from this type of story. Along with the first two parts told from the two male antagonists, I also struggled with the fact that at no time do we go deeper into Yeong-hye’s mind or view any events from her perspective. The mystery of her horrific dreams, the reasons she believes she is a tree, and her descent into mental illness are never told from her view. The mental illness is merely the trigger to how other characters unravel.
The Vegetarian is evocative, effective and elusive, but is it enjoyable? For me, no.
1.5 out of 5.