Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

One of my Goodreads friends recommended this book to me and I can't for the life of me remember who it was. But that recommendation lurked in the depths of my subconscious, and as the book started to get more and more positive attention from readers who were blown away, even going so far as to call it "life changing", I knew I was probably going to have to read it.

THE VEGETARIAN is one of those books that I'd call interesting but not necessarily good. It's divided into three parts and is about a woman in Korea named Yeong-hye who stops eating meat after having a horrific dream that disturbs her. But it's also more than that: it's about relationships, identity, and mental illness.

Part one is narrated by Yeong-hye's husband, Mr. Cheong: a cold and impassive man who married Yeong-hye because she was meek and docile, and because she could put good food on his plate. He is disturbed by the changes in his wife, and her spontaneous vegetarianism embarrasses him, especially when it causes him to lose face in front of colleagues, superiors, and family. Mr. Cheong even abuses his wife, raping her at one point, and assisting her family when they attempt to force-feed her meat and even sneak it into "medicine."

Part two is narrated by Yeong-hye's brother-in-law. He is an artist, one of those "sensitive" types. One day he is inspired by Yeong-hye to create a new project, borne out of a bizarre lust and fascination with her.

Part three is narrated by Yeong-hye's sister, In-hye, in the aftermath of everything. She is the only one who is really on Yeong-hye's side, but even she has her own selfish motives for doing what she does. This chapter gives us a bit more insight into the relationship between the two sisters and the circumstances that have made them into the people who they are today.

I saw one reviewer who said that this book was like three short books crammed into one volume, and ultimately I agree with that. If each chapter had been better developed, and less surreal and vague, it might have been easier to relate to all the characters. I also wish that we'd had more insight into Yeong-hye's dream, and that the ending had been less abrupt! I actually went back on my Kindle because I thought I'd skipped a page by accident! Nope! After all that, you chose to end on that note, Ms. Kang? I mean, I get it...and maybe that's the point: that real life doesn't always end on a certain note, and that's what makes it so real and terrifying. Just as dreams can be vague and nebulous, real life can end in the middle of a story line without being fully developed.

In some ways, THE VEGETARIAN reminded me of those proto-feminist novels from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Novels like THE AWAKENING, YELLOW WALLPAPER, and MADAME BOVARY. I call these books "prot-feminist" novels because they preceded the major feminist movements, and aren't empowering so much as disturbing and shocking. More of a plea for action than a call to it. The content and structure - rebellion, sexual exploration, descent into madness - are highly reminiscent of these novels, so I can see why reviewers are torn on whether this novel reflects an intimate portrait of a woman suffering from a debilitating mental illness, or the internalization of a woman's oppression. Could it be both? I don't see why not. It isn't as though these issues are mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite, if anything.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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