THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang won the International Man Booker Prize this year and prompted my desire to read through the shortlist this month. I still had two more books to tackle before this one, however, the smooth matte red cover seduced me and I plowed through the short novel in 48 hours.
While THE VEGETARIAN tells the story of a woman who suddenly decides to not eat meat or anything from an animal after a dream she has one night, the reader never gets her perspective. In fact, the woman isn’t even named until about 30 pages in. Instead, Yeong-hye’s story is told by her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Her choice to not eat meat rocks their worlds, yet in radically different ways. The husband sees her decisions as an act of selfishness, the brother-in-law starts to view her as something sensually exotic, and her sister sees her as someone in need of care, compassion, and pity.
Publishers Weekly gave the novel a starred review and called it, “A horror story in its depiction of the unknowability of others—of the sudden feeling that you’ve never actualy known someone close to you.” The three narrators certainly don’t understand Yeong-hye and the readers don’t get to know her either. Reviewers from across the globe identify themes and applaud a writing style so complex that one must read the book carefully and analytically to fully unpack it.
I read with a pen in hand and I underlined and made notes in the margin to help me unpack the plot. The critics were right—these 183 pages are so full they might burst. Kang’s story is dark and sensual, nightmarish and painful. However, I found myself continually returning to the power of a woman’s choice.
Yeong-hye is described as incredibly average. That’s what her husband loves about her. She is submissive and quiet and lets him do whatever he wants—”The passive personaly of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground.” Yeong-hye’s dream is so moving, so horrific, that readers are only given a brief glimpse of it. When she awakens, Yeong-hye has resolved to never eat meat. And her family crumbles around her.
While meat is a staple in South Korean meals, Yeong-hye doesn’t force others to comply with her new diet. She throws out all of the meat from her home, but her husband can eat what he wants when he is out, her family can make meat dishes. Yeong-hye just won’t eat them. While she is rejecting a cultural staple, she doesn’t draw attention to it. Still, this descision shakes everyone.
The power she finds from making this one choice leads to others. She stops having sex with her husband, she even attempts to take her own life in order to hold to the choices that she has made. She walks around naked because she likes it. She is described in increasingly vegetal ways, as though she is slowly leaving the animalistic human race and is instead joining the trees and flowers.
How powerful the female voice can be once finally given a chance to roar.