The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The VegetarianA beautiful, unsettling novel about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul
 
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.
 
Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is 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.*

This book reminded me a lot, especially in the third section, of “Death of a Salesman” in its existential musings about remaining bound by the constraints of society. Those constraints often keep us from truly living our lives, keeping us constantly in a state of mere existence instead, enduring life’s hardships with few moments of enjoyment in between. Recognizing this is all well and good–I remember feeling this way as far back as my early high school years–but what can one actually do about it?

All of this is especially felt by the two sisters in the story, In-Hye and Yeong-Hye, who are bound to the men in their lives by Korean culture and the expected submission of women to their husbands and fathers. The first two parts of this book are not even told from either woman’s perspective, though the vegetarian referenced in the title is Yeong-Hye. It is told instead through the eyes of the two husbands without giving the reader much insight into the mind of the protagonist, the vegetarian. There are also several husband/wife rape scenes, so if that is something that will be a trigger for you, I recommend skipping this book.

Despite the story being told by three different people (the husbands and In-Hye), the narration is relatively reliable throughout because it is third person limited, and that third person narrator will acknowledge when a trait being given to a character is not an accurate portrayal, but merely how the woman’s husband sees her. This book deals a lot with how people see one another and the ultimate unknowability and unpredictability of others, even those you have known and lived with for many years. Part of this is due to mental illness, which is explored graphically and thoroughly throughout the book, but part of it is merely attributed to human nature.

Even though this book is a translation of a Korean work, it doesn’t feel like anything is lost. I was never confused by any of the sentences or word choices, and it almost felt like there was more focus on the story and characterization than extraneous detail, which was nice.

If you have any interest in mental illness, Korean culture, and existential crises then this is the book for you!

*The cover image and synopsis are from Amazon.com. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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