The Vegetarian is a novel by Han Kang. I came across this novel, translated by Deborah Smith, in Waterstones. It is not a novel I had heard about before but I just knew I had to give it a read. It also helped that one of the booksellers was saying how gruesome and slightly disturbing the story was!
The novel itself is short so I found myself getting through it quickly. It is split up into three ‘sections’. Each one comes from a different character’s perspective. Sometimes I do find this a little annoying as you can feel as though you are not properly connecting with a protagonist. However, upon reading this novel it is easy to see how keeping it written in a single perspective would just not work. Therefore, I feel it is giving us a more rounded picture as we progress through the novel.
The first section is narrated by Yeong-Hye’s husband, he tells us about his wife who in the first couple of lines he describes as being ‘completely unremarkable in every way.’ He informs the reader of Yeong-Hye’s choice to become a vegetarian. Although he himself is a little confused as to her reasons for this lifestyle choice, we as the reader get glimpses of her reasoning. We are giving the gruesome, slightly disturbing, ‘dream’ Yeong-Hye often refers to.
The second section is darker than the first. It is narrated by Mr Cheung, Yeong-Hye’s brother in law. Mr Cheung is an aspiring artist who becomes fascinated with his sister in law and a birthmark that she potentially has. Through this he asks Yeong-Hye to feature in one of his artistic creations, a video.
The third section is when the novel becomes very weird. It is narrated by Yeong-Hye’s sister and this is when we see the true progression of Yeong-Hye’s vegetarianism. We realise quickly how extreme Yeong-Hye’s desires have become, we learn that she wants to become a tree. Intent on becoming a tree, she refuses food and does some pretty bizarre things. Unaware it seems, how she is hurting those around her.
I found the book extraordinary. More so because it is unlike anything I have ever read before. It’s completely bizarre, but in this I feel it captures the essence of ‘madness’. As Ian McEwan is quoted on the cover: ‘A novel of sexuality and madness that deserves its great success’. For a reader, this ‘madness’ is completely over our heads. I personally found it difficult to keep up with, simply because it is not something I am able to fully understand. I feel this is similar for a lot of people. The point is though, even though it seems bizarre, it all makes sense to Yeong-Hye. Her thoughts, aspirations and actions all make perfect sense. To her they are not madness, but they are reality. This is something I find interesting; everyone’s reality is different. Although yes her actions may be killing her, it leaves me with a bit more of an understanding of what we deem ‘mad’. An understanding that people we brush off as just being ‘mad’ are simply seeing a different reality to the one I am seeing. Does that make it Yeong-Hye’s or anybody else’s fault? Definitely not, they have simply just been giving a different sense of reality.
Although I don’t believe this book is for everybody, it has been blessed with some brilliant reviews: The Guardian called it ‘an extraordinary experience’ and the Independent called it ‘spellbinding’. For this alone I would be enticed to see what the fuss was about. Therefore I encourage you to take a couple of hours and read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, to see what you make of it yourself.