‘The Vegetarian’ is a cool, detached novel, both strange and beautiful. Sometimes raw and brutal, sometimes peculiar and surreal and finally touching and tender. The word which sums up this novel best is forlorn.
Troubling dreams encourage Yeong-Hye to become a vegetarian, an act of self-determination and subversion which angers and confuses her family, alienating her from those she once loved.
‘I approached my wife hesitantly. He’d hit her so hard that the blood showed through the skin of her cheek. Her breathing was ragged, and it seemed that her composure had finally been shattered. ‘Take hold of Yeong-hye’s arms, both of you.’
‘If she eats it once, she’ll eat it again, It’s preposterous, everyone eats meat!’
Yeong-hye stood up, looking as though she was finding this whole episode distasteful.
‘Sister, would you please just eat? Or after all, it would be simple enough just to pretend. Do you have to make such a thing of it in front of father?’
‘What kind of talk is that?’ my father-in-law yelled., ‘Grab her arms, quickly. You too, Mr. Cheong’
Punished for thinking , she is outcast. Her brother-in-law develops an obsession with her strangeness, her sexuality, creating herbo-erotic works of art which smother and exploit her body. Finally she makes the decision that her only hope for freedom is to escape from humanity itself: by transforming into a plant.
There is an aching sadness at the heart of this novel, firstly in Yeong-Hye herself, quietly, peacefully accepting both the punishment and fate bequeathed by her decision. In her silent state, Yeong-Hye becomes a mirror for those around her, reflecting their desires, failures and regret, emphasised by Kang’s decision to split the novel into three sections, each narrated by a different relative of Yeong-Hye: her husband, her brother-in-law and finally her sister.
Having these three sections allows Kang to play with the traditional structure of stories: the novel starts with the violent crescendo of the confrontation with her family, moves through the herbo-erotic fantasies of her brother in law and into the quiet, touching and most effective part of the novel, when Yeong-Hye’s sister visits her in hospital, attempting to come to terms with the present and working out how on earth they got there.
‘The Vegetarian’ is a novel which takes its time but is never slow. In the same way as playing structure, it traverses genres: all the while maintaining Kang’s vision – a unique picture of a woman’s desire for freedom and the price she must pay. I loved the novel’s strangeness, both in story, imagery and form, but it isn’t a novel I could honestly ‘love’ and want to read again – it is too icy for that. However, I will be interested to see where Kang goes with her next book ‘Human Acts’.