Before the dreams started, Yeong-hye lived a relatively normal life. She was a decent wife and a cooperative daughter. But after waking up from a violent nightmare one night, she decides to swear off meat entirely. This throws her family, and her life, into complete chaos. Her parents are repulsed, her husband is embarrassed, and her sister is concerned.
What comes next, is Yeong-hye’s story told in three acts by various people in her life: her husband, her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. Through each of their stories, progressing in time chronologically, the reader witnesses the concern and desperation increase as Yeong-hye becomes more and more unstable.
The Vegetarian begins with narration by Yeong-Hye’s husband. He finds her entirely unremarkable, but nonetheless, a suitable woman to help cook, clean, and one day, to carry his children. When he learns of her new eating habits, the first thing he thinks about is how this will effect him and his reputation. Next, we hear from her brother-in-law, who is an aspiring artist and filmmaker. He becomes entirely fascinated and infatuated by her, using her as a sexual muse for his art. Finally, the third perspective is told by her sister a few years in the future.
When this novel first started making the rounds in the book reviewing community, especially after winning the Man Booker International Prize, I was a bit intimidated. It soon became apparent I couldn’t ignore it any longer, and I was so pleasantly surprised with how beautiful and engrossing this book is. I think it’s easy to assume that translated works will be complicated or difficult to understand - but that is not the case at all.
Debora Smith did a beautiful job in making this book accessible without losing its native voice. Though there is a certain airy feeling to this novel, there is an underlying sensation of deep tension. The effect is both magnetizing and unsettling.
Throughout the novel, Yeong-hye carries a sense of unapologetic-ness, letting the only explanation for her sudden change remain at “I had a dream.” While Yeong-hye’s decision to stop eating meat turned into a kind of neurosis, this choice, at its onset, was one of (relatively) sound mind and certainty. It was a decision she made for herself, without pushing her new lifestyle or beliefs on anyone. Regardless, within the culture she is living in, it’s hard for those closest to her to accept this change and she is driven to live in emotional isolation.
Ultimately, The Vegetarian by Han Kang a book about choice and how the people in our life choose to let those decisions affect them. In South Korea, Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian was certainly seen as a rebellion - both a cause for concern and embarrassment. One could easily ask whether her mental illness that comes later in the book is due to an inherent disorder, or whether it is born of her loss of identity and her lack of belonging.
Han Kang truly created a work unlike any other. I have no hesitations on why or how this book won the Man Booker International Prize. The Vegetarian is unconventional, unhinged, and unwavering.
*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review*