I was eager to read Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning book, The Vegetarian. Recounting the story of a woman who stops eating meat and how that affects her family dynamic, I thought it would be an empowering story of how a journey into healthy eating became an awakening; a shucking-off of the protagonist’s subservience in a patriarchal society. A Korean version of Beyonce’s Lemonade, if you like.
Good Lord, was I wrong. The Vegetarian is not a story about empowerment. Nobody cares where this protagonist gets her protein. This is about a descent into madness, the cruelty of those who are closest to you and the story of a woman who is used up by everyone around her and then discarded like a mouldy orange peel.
Yeong-hye is the central figure in this story – she is the vegetarian (although I use that term loosely because it’s not exactly accurate). And yet, you only ever see her just out of the corner of your eye, catching glimpses of her through the perceptions of other people in her life. She isn’t shown as a fully-formed character and you never hear her side of the story. As Yeong-hye doubles down on her choice not to eat meat, she exposes the true natures of the characters around her, allowing us to learn much more about them than we do her.
There’s her husband, a mediocre, condescending, misogynistic, patently unlikeable character for whom Yeong-hye is like a wife-bot that he bought at the local appliance store: It cooks! It cleans! It lies on its back and lets you hump it! When Yeong-hye begins her journey into vegetarianism, it’s as if the husband’s wife-bot has shorted out and he couldn’t care less about why; he just keeps banging it upside the head to get it started again and then throws it out when he can’t get it working.
There’s her brother-in-law, a ‘starving artist’ (but for the comfortable life his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister, provides), who uses Yeong-hye for his own strange purposes while at the same time slowly wading into his own mental breakdown. And finally there’s Yeong-hye’s sister, who also flirts with madness but uses Yeong-hye as a crutch to keep it together; not because her sister is such a stabilising force, but as though she’s siphoning off her crazy into Yeong-hye, filling her sister with dirt so she can remain clean. So basically, everyone’s going mad. The Hatter would be thrilled.
Mad as they may be, the picture we get of Yeong-hye from those around her is consistent: she is cold, lacking in emotion, silent, hovering through her own life as if a ghost. Everyone uses her for their own purposes but, at the same time, she lets them. She has a few bursts of fire every now and then: when she physically fights off those trying to force-feed her (yes this is a thing that happens), and the few times we briefly hear her voice at the beginning of the tale when she recalls a recurring dream, the catalyst for her rejection of meat. These dreams and her telling of them are bold, passionate and rich with colour – a striking juxtaposition against her wan and listless awakened persona.
We learn that she is trying to turn herself into a tree because of some deep-seated feelings of guilt about eating meat, although we never learn from whence the guilt stems. We only barely scratch the surface of a deep well of serious issues with Yeong-hye. The writing in The Vegetarian is startlingly simple and the voice is quiet. Even in scenes where you cringe (and there are a few), it is a kind of hushed horror. Sexual assault is described in the same way you would tell your mother what you had for dinner; scenes that could potentially be defined as passionate or sexually charged are muted.
When you start The Vegetarian, you enter a sphere in which a woman who is suffering is at the centre, yet no one really sees her – not even you, the reader. You never know who she is or learn why she took those first steps to cleanse herself of the blood from all that meat. The Vegetarian isn’t a feelgood book and no one is empowered here, but the novel’s minimalistic writing, the way a character so central to a story could so barely exist, was intriguing to read. I find myself sometimes still wondering what happened to them all, although I have long finished this strange tale.