Poetically dark, surreal, with startling imagery that lingers on well after the last page is turned. The Vegetarian written by Han Kang and translated into English by Deborah Smith is the 2016 winner of the Man Booker International prize. It’s the story of Yeong-hye, a young married woman in a hum-drum loveless marriage. She has grown up in a strongly patriarchic home and now passively completes household tasks and looks after her husband’s needs. When she isn’t working she lives a detached life alone in her own room reading. But things are about to change.
We only get glimpses into Yeong-Hye’s mind, so she remains quietly mysterious. Mostly we learn about her through the eyes of three family members – first her husband, her brother in law, and finally her elder sister. At first her low key behaviour suits her cold and selfish husband just fine. He doesn’t care what she does as long as it doesn’t disrupt his own life. So everything goes pear-shaped after she announces that she is now vegetarian. Her parents are on his side. They see her decision as simply causing trouble for her husband. Not to mention acting against social norms. Heaven forbid. Her father insists she eat meat. She refuses. This doesn’t end well.
I don’t want to give too much away, but as Yeong-hye becomes more unhinged, her brother in law, an artist, lets his imagination run away with him all in the name of Art he persuades himself. Finally there is the agony of an older sister who can do nothing but mull over the cause of her younger sister’s troubles and question her own behaviour in the past. Ironically, as Yeong-hye takes control of her own body, it is those around her who become helpless. Nobody can make her do anything anymore.
The more I think about the book the more there is to say. Many themes are covered including attitudes to mental health, sexual desire, gender and the body, society norms and expectations, helplessness vs. control. It’s not a long story but there is so much going on behind the quiet facade. The writing is succinct. The mood surreal and eerie with dramatic scenes that still linger in my mind. It’s very unusual. Some might say depressing. I didn’t find it depressing at all. But it is disturbing and thought-provoking. And don’t expect a neat happy-every-after ending. There are questions that can’t be answered just as there are still so many mysteries of the mind that are not totally understood. It’s a book I will read again.