There is something haunting about The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It has been about a day since I finished it and the book has been sticking with me. The more I think about it, the more deep the book becomes.
If one were to look at it solely as a novel, it is a very strange tale told in three parts. Part 1 is about a woman, Yeong-Hye, who decides to become a vegetarian. This is insulting to her husband and her family and is a dishonor. Anytime she is asked why, she responds "I had a dream," yet no one seems to care what the dream was. Part 1 ends with Yeong-Hye slitting her wrist at a dinner party after her father tries to force feed her meat.
Part 2 begins a few years later, when Yeong-Hye's brother in law, who paints flowers on people's bodies, thinks about his sister in law. Her brother in law is obsessed with a Mongolian mark on Yeong-Hye's body. He fantasizes about it and becomes sexually attracted to Yeong-Hye. He asks her to pose, even though she is just a few months out of a psychiatric unit. Things escalate and Yeong-Hye's brother in law finds himself too far into his fantasy to back away.
Part 3 has Yeong-Hye back in the psychiatric unit as she now refuses to eat. She begins to stand on her hands upside down. Yeong-Hye is now cared for by her sister who does not understand what happened to her sister all those years ago and why she refuses to eat now.
This is not an easy novel to read, but the images within the book will haunt you. In many reviews, the book is described as Kafkaesque and that would be a great descriptor. It is also a great commentary on the human body, the freedom of the will, and how our choices do not really effect anyone else, although people believe they do.
For example, her husband, at a dinner party thrown by his boss is so upset that his wife not only refuses to eat, but is not wearing a bra. All he can do is focus on her nipple, so much so that it ruins the party for him. He is embarrassed and humiliated and believes everyone at the party was staring. This theme is returned to when the brother in law becomes obsessed with the Mongolian mark on her body. He is not attracted to her, but attracted to the mark and he desires to own it. Both are commentaries on how males turn women into objects and sexualize the non sexual. There are also themes of ownership that run through these two images.
There are definitely some cultural items that I seemed to be missing to fill in why someone choosing to be vegetarian would be so insulting to a whole family, but even with the cultural items, one could pick up the general gist of the humiliation.
As stated, this is definitely not a book for everybody, but should you decided to jump in, allow the narrative to be a commentary. Read it for the symbols and the statements behind the words. As a story, it just simply will not work as it is a strange story. As a look at how people treat women, commentaries on bodies and choices, and being forced to do things one does not want, it becomes a wonderful book. I rated it 3 stars.
Here is the Amazon link- The Vegetarian by Han Kang