The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

The Vegetarian: A Novel - Han Kang

What an odd little book. Struggling to find a way to describe it, I read some reviews and found many comparisons to Kafka, which, in retrospect, rings true. The Vegetarian is unsettling; it takes the everyday and scours what's beneath. The last paragraph of its synopsis on Amazon accurately casts the novel as "a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her."


All it takes is one woman's personal choice to stop eating meat to splinter her family. Yeong-hye is not really the protagonist, a fact that mirrors how much control she has not had in her life. The short novel is divided into three sections, with each told from the perspective of a family member: her impatient, baffled husband; her fascinated artist brother-in-law; and her responsible sister. Their reactions to Yeong-hye's decision--and her steadfast adherence to it despite their efforts and the efforts of doctors--illuminate their own appetites as much as hers. Only in the first section do we get her direct perspective, italicized and interspersed with her husband's.


Yeong-hye does not stop eating meat (and eggs and dairy and, eventually, anything) because of health reasons or even an outwardly ethical concern. She has nightmares, bloody and violent nightmares where she sees a face she can't identify. In one striking passage, she thinks,


"I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening—what I am going to gouge?"


Violence is never far from the surface, and as the narrative develops, we learn more about the violence Yeong-hye has experienced. As her condition progresses, she begins to think of herself as a plant, something without blood or violent will that survives on sunlight and water (though I'd personally tell her plants need food, too). Her sister, still the responsible one despite a close call, tries her best to save Yeong-hye but also sympathizes.


This is the kind of book I wish I were reading for a class so I'd have a chance to hear others' interpretations. It resonated plenty with me, but I get the sense there's so much more going on than a first read alone could provide.