(2016) The Year in Books – The Vegetarian


I’m not sure why, but every time I heard someone recommend this book they described it as the story of a woman who decides to stop eating meat, only to then deal with the social fallout as her friends and family fail to understand this decision. Well, fancy my surprise when I get to the bit where someone starts talking about turning into a tree.

Sure, The Vegetarian starts off with its protagonist Yeong-hye, a regular housewife in a regular (well…let’s call it ‘semi-functional’) marriage, deciding to abstain from meat after a particularly disturbing nightmare. And sure, a hefty section of the book describes the unsympathetic reactions of those around her. Her literally-good-for-nothing-all-around-terrible-person husband flies off the handle when she refuses to cook him anything containing meat. His coworkers and their families come close to outright bullying as she refuses to eat meat at a dinner party. And her family go way past the point of bullying as they at one point literally force meat into her mouth and try to make her swallow it. (side note: this inability to understand someone’s choice to be a vegetarian might sound really strange to you. While I’ve never lived in South Korea it does seem to have something common with my current home Japan – a country where vegetarianism is decidedly Not A Thing, and where restaurant staff have been known to respond to requests for a dish with ‘no meat’ by recommending meat stock-based dishes, just with the actual huge slices of meat removed (occasionally with little flakes of meat still in it because that’s not really meat after all).)

But it’s about a hell of a lot more than just vegetarianism, even if its treatment of Yeong-hye’s situation is indeed insightful and at times slightly sickening. Divided into three sections, The Vegetarian starts to wriggle itself apart at the seams as it transitions from the first into the second. The uncaring, borderline sociopathic narration of Yeong-hye’s husband that focuses on his wife’s decision gives way to Yeong-hye’s neurotic, increasingly unhinged brother-in-law as he obsesses about his art projects, which one day come to centre around an equally unhinged obsession with Yeong-hye herself. And at a moment of unbelievable climax it transitions again into its third part, where again our viewpoint shifts. This time the narrator is Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, as she tries to care for both Yeong-hye and her own troubled family.

In trying to write about The Vegetarian these past few paragraphs I’ve sort of come to understand why everyone just told me it was about a vegetarian and left things at that: it’s almost impossible to talk about it without giving everything away. And while it’s not a mystery story, or even particularly dependent on keeping secrets from the reader, some of the power of The Vegetarian would definitely be stripped away if you were to go in expecting all its weird twists and genuinely insane sucker punches.

I will say, however, that what it does it does incredibly well. Han Kang’s prose (and of course Deborah Smith’s translation) is simultaneously sharp and deadened. It captures something sad and awful about ordinary lives in Yeong-hye’s marriage, her relationship with her family, and society in general. There’s a heavy, suffocating atmosphere hanging pregnant over the whole thing (pregnant with dread), which only becomes more heavy and much much much much more suffocating as the book continues and Yeong-hye’s life begins to fray at the seams.

But also, wow, that middle section. While not exactly throwing off that heavy, suffocating atmosphere, it also temporarily manages to escape it – shooting suddenly upwards into the mania of an artist completely absorbed in their own work. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is a sad, strange character, but it’s also shockingly easy to find something to recognise and, perversely, even root for in his abandonment of his ordinary life for his weird and increasingly unhealthy obsession with a single aesthetic desire. And this holds true, even as things culminate in what could very well be the emotional and sexual exploitation of someone with severe mental illness. In a book otherwise so harsh and dread-pregnant, this manic break in the middle feels strangely positive, even as you know what Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is doing is 99% definitely morally wrong, even as you know it can’t possibly last. And when it inevitably all falls apart, and the impact knocks us into the long, trying, but still very worthwhile final third of the novel, it makes everything feel so much worse.

The Vegetarian is a very special book. It’s strange and depressing, and reading it somethings actually feels unhealthy, and that’s exactly why I love it so much, and exactly why you might also like it but might end up really hating it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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