Thanks to N.B. for this guest post. N.B. is famous for knowing all the trivia answers, cooking incredible bread-things and being a remarkably kind and generous human. Thanks, N!
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, is a strange read. You might not know what you think about it until you get to the end, and maybe not even then. Originally published in South Korea in 2007, and translated into English in 2015, it would later go on to win the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for its author, Han Kang, and translator, Deborah Smith. It is a short novel about a woman, Yeong-hye, who has a nightmare that leads to her abruptly becoming a vegetarian, a decision that may seem simple enough, but that for her family is a true and utter catastrophe. She is the stain that refuses to come out, and that then becomes, because of its stubbornness, a destroyer of whole worlds. If this sounds melodramatic, it’s because it is.
The reason that the melodrama in the novel works is because we watch the catastrophe unfold through the perspective of three characters who are not Yeong-hye, and who each get a section of this three-part novel: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. We have very limited access to Yeong-hye’s thoughts, fears, or motivations, so the drama arises from the reaction of those around her as they respond with varying degrees of incredulity to her seemingly bizarre and irrational behaviour. There is a lot of irony in all this, of course, meaning that perhaps the real scandal is how her decision makes her an object of shame, or desire, or pity as the members of her family wring their hands about her transgression of social norms. In other words, her vegetarianism may not be the most important thing here, since the fact that no one else can understand it says much more about the world she lives in than it does about herself, even if her behaviour sometimes really is quite troubling.
And this last point is where The Vegetarian might lose some readers. Because Yeong-hye is so inscrutable, there are valid questions about her behaviour that we probably share with her family members. There may be some who read her vegetarianism less as an allegory about how political acts of refusal become socially misunderstood, which is my take, and more as a symptom that there is something seriously wrong with her. But even so, the novel rides the fine line between these two for long enough to make you think. In this sense, it is a wonderfully unsettling novel, and worthy of the time it will take you to read it.