Review: The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Written by Han Kang, The Vegetarian has been translated into English by Deborah Smith.

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Before my wife became a vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.

This is how Han Kang’s second work available in English begins. The Vegetarian, a tale in three parts, follows Yeong Hye’s decision to become a vegetarian following a recurring dream. Each part is narrated from a different first person perspective. What starts off as a seemingly innocuous transition in dietary habits slowly evolves into a frightening tale of deprivation.

The first part, ‘The Vegetarian’ is narrated from the perspective of Mr. Cheong, Yeong Hye’s husband, a laid back person with a predilection for an unremarkable lifestyle. This part of the story traces his struggle to reconcile his dormant wife’s rapid transition from a docile housewife to a strong, aloof vegetarian who refuses to consume meat. He makes multiple attempts to try to restore normalcy, first through subtle coercion and then by involving her family.

I think that this part stands out because of Kang’s ability to subtly bring out the characteristics of a patriarchal society and its inability to deal with concepts such as mental health. This is epitomized in Cheong’s reaction to his wife’s deteriorating physical state as her paranoia becomes worse. He comments, in two separate instances,

“In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done”

“I resisted the temptation to indulge in introspection. This strange situation had nothing to do with me”

The ability of these simple sentences to paint a clear picture of a typical self-centred patriarch should not be underestimated. To deal with an issue which is often the subject of verbose description with pleasing brevity that doesn’t eschew clarity is something anyone reading this book should look out for. Towards the end of this part, Yeong-Hye attempts to commit suicide following her father’s attempt to feed her meat forcefully.

 The second part, ‘Mongolian Mark’ is written from the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s sister’s husband. He is an artist, largely dependent on his successful wife’s business. This section of the book is arguably the best portion of Kang’s work. The narrative starts off after Yeong-Hye’s suicide attempt and her subsequent divorce from her husband. ‘Mongolian Mark’ sees Yeong-Hye eschew other facets of ‘normal life’ as she continues to be haunted by dreams which she attributes to her life as a non-vegetarian.

In-Hye’s husband develops a strong attraction to the idea of using Yeong-Hye as a subject in his artistic work. The narrative entices the reader with several sexual overtones, coupled with an insight into an artist’s obsessive, consuming drive to consummate the ideas which float in their head. Readers should look out for this conflict between propriety, sexual desire, and artistic drive. A portion which stands out for me is the short incident of marital rape which occurs, when In-Hye’s husband, driven by visions of his desire for Yeong-Hye forces his wife to have sex with him, even as she cries.

“She might have lain there sobbing for hours in the darkness. He didn’t know”

“But the next morning, she hadn’t acted any different from usual”

The questions this part raises, about the validity of consent from individuals who are struggling with disabilities and marital rape are not only relevant questions but are dealt with in a manner which seems driven towards introspection, as opposed to impact. In my opinion, this is what truly makes ‘The Vegetarian’ a riveting read.

If this is not enough of an endorsement of Han Kang’s work, the promise of an equally excellent third part ‘Flaming Trees’, told from the perspective of In-Hye should appeal to you. In-Hye, the woman who seems to epitomize the catch phrase that ‘women can have it all’ goes through a gamut of emotions as she deals with her divorce and Yeong-Hye’s deterioration in an institution.

What stands out about ‘The Vegetarian’, is the ability to use a relatively terse storyline to effectively tell a compelling story and illustrate pertinent social issues, thus making it a book that should grace your bookshelf.