The Vegetarian, a novel by South Korean author Han Kang, is a dark story that begins with a change in diet. As you can guess perhaps by the title, a grown woman’s rejection of meat is our inciting event. Vegetarianism is normal and healthy for millions of people around the world, but this woman’s family doesn’t have a clue.
The jumping off point for this story is completely unique in the fiction I’ve read. It’s also easy to relate to. I became a vegetarian as a child and my family was not happy about it. They assumed it was a phase and when I didn’t change my mind it became a problem.
In this story, one woman’s vegetarianism is portrayed as a subversive push against oppression. The complexity is exciting, so I was a bit disappointed when this became a tale of mental illness.
Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian is received as a threat by her family. We observe and try to process her transformation from the perspective of a cold, narrow minded crappy husband, a lusty brother-in-law and a loving sister. When she avoids sex because of how bad her husband smells to her, he naturally assumes she’s slipping into hysteria.
As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight … being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion.
Time passes between each section so we sort of whirl through the lows of this woman’s life. The novel is a concise example of melodrama done well. There are no highs or moments in the middle when you can think maybe things will be okay. The final part from her sister’s section is the slowest read, but most compelling.
She’d been unable to forgive her sister for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.
I love a book that treats its readers like they’re smart. Visceral, bloody images of the lives Yeong-hye’s eaten and imagines are forever stuck in her body don’t try to spell out her reasons why. Why she became a vegetarian is asked repeatedly, but nobody really tries to understand. The family’s response, her father’s violence and husband’s lack leave you with as much to think about as Yeong-hye’s dreamlike end. This would make for an ugly movie, but the internal world is fascinating.
The Vegetarian is a slim, tense novel that manages to be both beautiful and super depressing. I’m glad I read it and really glad it was short.
On another note, there are some scary psychological risks to following a veg diet without taking the time to learn what the body needs. Vitamin deficiency, particularly with B12, which the body doesn’t produce and is only gotten from meat, can lead to paranoia, depression and brain fog so thick you can’t think straight. That’s not what happens to Yeong-hye – the liver can store B12 for years – see a nutritionist or do a lot of homework before experimenting with your diet.