The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a South Korean novel told in three parts. Kang is the daughter of novelist Han Seung-won. She has gone on to win the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. As of summer 2013, Han teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts while writing stories and novels.
The Vegetarian starts with a simple premise. A woman, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian and her family reacts to her decision. The novel is much deeper than that, though. The first part of the book his told by her husband. He recalls there is nothing special with Yeong-hye. She is plain looking. Her hair neither long or short. Her plain black shoes moved along neither fast nor slow. Her future husband felt no special attraction to her nor any drawbacks. She became a completely ordinary wife. The only odd thing about Yeong-hye was she did not like wearing a bra. She remained completely ordinary
She had a dream that changes her life. A graphic and bloody dream that turns her away from meat and all animal products. It is an annoyance to her husband who sees it’s not a plant based diet she is living, but a plant-like life. The rest of her family takes issue and things spiral out of control. The second part is told by her brother-in-law and takes the reader deeper into obsession. The final part is told by her sister. Each section reflects a movement into the future and a different look at Yeong-hye. Yeong-hye role is the pivot point for the story although she tells very little of her own story. The book is written in the first person by her three relations.
As a vegetarian myself, I thought it would be interesting to see how it would be taken in Korea. I expected it would not be an issue in a country where a quarter of the population Buddhist. I found myself mistaken and found it was much more socially acceptable to be a vegetarian in Texas than Korea. The novel, however, is not about vegetarianism as much as it is about obsession and acting on obsessions. There is a difference between being a little rebellious and going against societal norms. Yeong-hye perhaps is not the center point, but the microscope that allows us to see our own selves in detail.
It is a hard to categorize novel, but one plenty to think about. It is a bit disturbing at times but never turns the reader away. People have complained that Yeong-hye is flat and one-dimensional and perhaps that is the point. She does not get to tell her story. We have to rely on those around her to tell the story and wade through their personal issues, prejudices, and obsessions. A very well done story that stays with you long after you finish.