‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

My rating: 5 stars

Human beings can cause each other unimaginable suffering, not only physically, but also psychologically. Despite its title, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is not a book about vegetarianism. It delves into the consequences of abuse, mental health problems, rebellion against social conventions and desire, achieving an unsettling, affecting and remarkable tale, which encapsulates a myriad of believable emotions and tribulations.

Yeong-hye had always been a dutiful wife. She cooked dinner, washed her husband’s clothes, prepared everything he needed in the mornings. One day, after having a strange and disquieting dream, she threw away all of the meat that they had in the fridge and became a vegetarian. Why did that dream affect her so much? The book is not told from Yeong-hye’s point of view. So, in order to understand her decision, readers have to piece together the perspectives of three other characters, and an answer can only be inferred after her sister’s memories are presented.

Han Kang split the narrative into three parts. The first one is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, a patently despicable man. The way in which he speaks about his wife is revolting, and his actions even more so. He was concerned that she had stopped sleeping and had started to progressively lose weight for what were only selfish reasons. He recalls her parents being also appalled at her becoming a vegetarian and having ceased to cook meat for him, as that was completely out of the norm. His contempt for Yeong-hye is obvious from the very beginning.

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.”

The husband’s perspective raises many questions about Yeong-hye’s behaviour. I cared for her well-being without even needing to know her feelings from her own perspective, because it’s obvious from the outset that she was struggling emotionally. My concern for her only increased while reading the following two chapters, which are told in the third person from the perspectives of her brother-in-law, a video artist who was exploitative without even fully realising, and her sister.

All points of view are written with very distinctive voices, which seem to match the personalities of the characters whose perspectives are being presented. Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, is outwardly capable of remaining calm under very difficult circumstances. The descriptions of her surroundings and the rhythm of the sentences refer to that feeling of calmness, although underneath that serenity there is also significant psychological suffering. She just deals with it in a completely different way from Yeong-hye.

“She closes her bloodshot eyes for a long time before opening them again. The tree fills her field of vision, still silent, keeping its own counsel.”

Though there is a mysterious ambience throughout the book, the focus is not on the plot. The characters’ feelings and inner struggles are paramount. For that reason, the unconventional structure of The Vegetarian, which doesn’t have an obvious climax and resolution, is picture-perfect. The beautiful simplicity of the visual writing style only accentuates how affecting the story is.

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