Spotlight on International Fiction: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang

This post comes from our inventory manager Jan. 



It all started with the nightmare. In the midst of Kim Yeong-hye and her husband’s mediocre, middle-class marriage, the dream about blood and meat and carnage. To make the dream stop, Yeong-hye stops eating meat. Then all food. Eventually, she becomes more plant-like than animal to those around her.

The Vegetarian is about transformation: birthmarks bloom into flowers, trees alight with flames, arms stretch out into roots, a bird speaks with a mother’s voice, a piece of art transcends the piece itself to shatter several lives. Yeong-hye’s violent dreams are a product of a lifetime of internalized aggressions, microaggressions, and passive erasure. This book is about the violence that women hold onto inside themselves and the only way to let it go is to let go of the entire world.

The novel is structured in three parts: starting from Yeong-hye’s (unnamed) husband’s point of view, he shares his opinions about his unremarkable, unchallenging wife. However, once his narration ends, he all but ceases to exist for the sake of this story. Much like his “middle-of-the-road” existence, he neither catalyzes Yeong-hye’s transformation nor influences her decisions once she stops eating. The same goes for the central character in the second section, In-hye’s husband: once he has used Yeong-hye for his artistic purposes and is caught by his wife, he exits the story, never to return. The men don’t even have names (it is not uncommon in Korean literature to divert attention away from characters who are not the subject–even if they are narrating–by leaving them nameless). After the two husbands depart, all that are left are the two sisters. Older sister In-hye cuts all ties to everyone in her life (except her young son) in her refusal to abandon the hospitalized and deteriorating  Yeong-hye.

Yeong-hye is essentially always a child–from rejecting the trappings of modern womanhood by refusing to wear a bra to physically deteriorating into a child through her starvation. The parallels that a reader can make to six-year-old Ji-woo, the other sick child that In-hye cares for, are not unreasonable.

In-hye’s emotions roller-coaster: concern for her sister’s health and comfort during her hospital stay, jealousy that her sister has freed herself of societal obligations, and finally guilt at not having protected Yeong-hye from first their father, then their husbands. A heart-wrenching tale of watching someone dying and knowing you have failed them.

A reader might balk at Yeong-hye’s lack of voice throughout the story, considering that she is the subject. But for anyone who has watched someone make the decision to destroy themselves, we know that at a certain point, satisfying answers are never forthcoming.
Recommended pairing with Young-ha Kim’s I Have The Right to Destroy Myself.

3 thoughts on “Spotlight on International Fiction: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang

  1. I’ve heard about this from a couple of people now and I’m really quite tempted; I explored Japanese literature last year to I think I will branch out into Korean literature this year. Great review.

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