Han Kang: The Vegetarian
Posted by Meghan Hayes
This book came to me when I was in a very dark place. I was about ~200 pages into Moby Dick and saw no light at the end of the tunnel. We started daydreaming about other books to read and then Meg's friend Becca posted the New York Times' top 10 list to the bookclub's Facebook group and while reading all the descriptions I came across The Vegetarian.
I have been telling everyone I see this two sentence plot synopsis that sold me on the book: A woman becomes a vegetarian after having a series of graphic, violent dreams. It ruins her marriage.
If you haven't already gleaned, my favourite plotline is a failed or failing marriage.
There were only two things that disappointed me about this book:
1) When I spotted it on the shelf at Indigo it was incredibly thin .. this book is only 183 pages
2) I was initially horrified when I finished what I thought was the first chapter of this book and suddenly there seemed to be a new plotline with a new narrator ... if you google the book you will see that this is a three-part novella. The first section deals directly with the vegetarian wife (Yeong-hye), and the other two sections are from the perspective of two of her family members
I'm going to divide this review into the three sections of the novella!!
This chapter opens up with Yeong-hye's husband going on and on about how unremarkable his wife is ... that there is absolutely nothing unique or spectacular about either her appearance or her personality. After a few chapters of this he finally mentions that the only unusual thing about his wife is that she hates to wear a bra.
I remember thinking this man is clearly an idiot as it would be unusual for a woman to ENJOY wearing a bra. I remember actress Zoe Kazan tweeting this hierarchy of what to take off when you get home: shoes > bra > jeans ... I don't last 5 minutes in a real bra when I'm home. Anyways ...
She becomes a vegetarian immediately in the book. This chapter is all from her annoyed husband's perspective and I remember laughing out loud when I read how pissed he is that she isn't serving meat: "I sat in silence, steadfastly uninterested in this poor excuse for a meal, crunching on kimchi for what felt like an age." This is an exchange that would happen between me and Meg ... I remember being so pissed when she told me she was making us mac and cheese for dinner and I find out the cheese is actually ground up CASHEWS.
I also liked this section best because it gives little bits and pieces from Yeong-hye's dreams:
"Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides."
There is also a really violent dream / memory involving a dog but I won't go into any detail here because Meg would throw a fit.
I was reading this book while waiting in line at the movies when I got to this new section. At first I was so pissed because I thought maybe The Vegetarian was just a short story, but soon after you realize that this new character is Yeong-hye's brother-in-law.
This was my least favourite section because the brother-in-law is so annoying. All of the male characters in this book are horrendous people. Not only are they incredibly whiny and selfish, but they also sexually and physically assault some of the women in their lives.
I was also mildly horrified while reading this section because it starts with him developing an obsession for his wife's sister: "'Huh, now she's my type; even though they're sisters, and they're quite similar in many ways, there's some subtle difference between them' - this thought flitted briefly through his mind, and was gone." This is one of my worst nightmares and I'll leave it at that.
This section is from the perspective of Yeong-hye's older sister. This poor woman is married to the piece of garbage discussed above. When contemplating the end of their marriage she tackles another favourite topic of mine .. "Respect - that was what she'd taken his words to connote, but might they not in fact have been intended as a confession, that whatever it was he felt for her, it was nothing even remotely resembling love?"
This is definitely an interesting storyline / perspective for anyone that has a younger sibling. In-hye is incredibly protective of her sister (who is essentially dying in the hospital from starvation), but also feels deep down that she has failed her. My favourite passage in this entire book is pretty lengthy so I'll just take little pieces and try to bridge the rest. In-hye explains that her younger sister Yeong-hye (the vegetarian) always got the brunt of their father's beatings. In-hye recalls a memoy of her younger sister:
"A long time ago, she and Yeong-hye had got lost on a mountain. Yeong-hye, who had been nine at the time, said, 'Let's just not go back.' At the time, In-hye hadn't understoof what she meant. 'What are you talking about? It'll get dark any minute now. We have to hurry up and find the path.'"
In-hye then goes on to explain how she and their brother avoided the beatings ... "Now, with the benefit of hindsight, In-hye could see that the role that she had adopted back then of the hard-working, self-sacrificing eldest daughter had been a sign not of maturity but of cowardice. It had been a survival tactic." Sibling and survivor's guilt...
She wonders if she and her sister had run away all those years ago, would things be different? Would Yeong-hye be spoiling away in a psychiatric hospital?
I would recommend Kang's book to anyone who enjoys fiction. It is so easy to read and because it is only 183 pages you don't have to commit to it the way you would with say Franzen fiction. The two-sentence premise alone is so fascinating to me. A lot of the third section deals with what it means to be the older sibling, which wasn't something I was expecting when I picked up the book. It turned out to be one of my favourite parts.
I'll end this with one more quotation that I really liked from the book. It's from a scene when In-hye is at the hospital visiting her sister. She is trying not to cry.
"If only one's eyes weren't visible to others, she thinks. If only one could hide one's eyes from the world."