What to make of The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I have been waiting so very long to read this book. I first heard about it around this time last year over on Three Percent. I thought it sounded amazing. It wasn’t available in the US, had not been published here. In the meantime, it began turning up on blogs of people who are not in the US and I wanted to read it more each time. Finally, in November of last year it appeared in my library catalog as being “on order.” I immediately put myself at number one on the holds queue. And I waited. And Waited. And then waited some more. Until at last the book was at the library and ready for me to pick up. Was all that waiting worth it? Oh yes.
The Vegetarian was ably translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. It is a beautiful book about mental illness, family, beauty, responsibility, refusing to comply with social rules and family expectations. It’s tone is quiet and gentle even when some of the situations are violent. It is sometimes overwhelmingly sad and sometimes breathtakingly gorgeous. Occasionally it is mildly humorous. Most of the time it is disturbing, unsettling. This is not a comfort read.
Yeong-hye is the vegetarian in question. She is married but the relationship is not a loving one. Her husband chose her because she was convenient, submissive, and no trouble. He is trying to climb the corporate ladder and impressions are everything. Yeong-hye takes care of the house and all her husband’s needs, she doesn’t complain when he works late or needs to go out for a drink with the boss. She is a maid with benefits and her husband doesn’t once stop to consider her needs or desires because he does not care and they do not matter. Her job, her position, her life is to be there entirely for him.
One night Yeong-hye has a dream. We are not privy to what the dream is right away, though we learn about it later and it is horrific. It is this dream that makes her decide to become a vegetarian, more vegan actually since she throws out all the milk and eggs and meat in the refrigerator and refuses to cook anything other than vegetarian for her husband. This effectively upends her husband’s well-ordered world as once she refuses to eat meat, she begins refusing to do other things as well. The consequences are terrible in the true sense of the word.
The next section of the book is narrated by her brother-in-law who is an artist. He falls in love with Yeong-hye. He conceives an art project that involves painting flowers on her naked body and filming it. The flowers are vivid and alive, different than anything he has done before. Yeong-hye loves them and does not want them to wash off. There are some beautiful scenes in this section, almost transcendent moments and I got the feeling that if Yeong-hye could be perpetually covered in painted flowers that everything would be ok for her. But of course this is not the case.
The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. Yeong-hye has been committed to a mental institution and now refuses to eat anything. She is wasting away and medical staff keep trying to intervene but their attempts are unsuccessful. In-hye is the good sister, the one who follows all the rules. She has her own successful business, a young child, and while she is no longer married to her artist husband, she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. The rest of the family has disowned Yeong-hye so it is In-hye who is paying the medical bills, who consults with the doctors, who visits regularly and tries desperately to make her sister well.
Gradually, In-hye begins to understand the things behind Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat, not through long heart-to-heart conversations with her sister, but through her visits and sitting silently with her and being forced to think about their childhood, their father, their lives. In-hye realizes how much anger she has inside of her and can only imagine if that is what she carries, what must her sister be holding inside? The book ends with the sisters and brought tears to my eyes, is bringing tears right now as I type this.
Most of the story is told to us through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister. Only in a few short places early in the book does Yeong-hye speak for herself. Her silence is not just in the narrative but in her life too. She has some short dialogue in a few places but it is reported through someone else’s narrative. The others comment frequently on how quiet she is, how she won’t talk and this causes no end of frustration to all involved.
I loved The Vegetarian. It is not a lighthearted read. But it did not leave me depressed either. It manages to walk that fine line of tragedy without tipping over the edge into making you feel like you’ve been through the wringer. Instead, when I turned the last page I felt sad and stunned and sat there saying wow, wow, wow over and over. And then I spent the rest of the evening telling Bookman at random moments how good the book was.
I am very happy that Kang has a new book out, Human Acts. It is getting much praise. Hopefully I won’t have to wait an entire year before I get to read it.