On the surface, Han Kang’s short novel The Vegetarian is simply about a woman who doesn’t want to eat meat anymore. She doesn’t want anything from animals, actually, and her decision to cut herself off from this portion of the food pyramid affects the people around her greatly. Kang, writing in Vietnamese with translations by Deborah Smith, brings the cultural and traditional ideals of Vietnam into the story – the patriarchal society, the importance of appearance – and breaks the full novel down into three different perspectives. From here, it becomes more than just a story about taking up a different eating habit; it morphs into a dream-like fable about human choice, obsession, and how the perceptions of others define and limit us.
The Vegetarian‘s three vignettes are told from the point-of-view of family members around Kang’s vegetarian, named Yeong-hye, and they also move fluidly in time through the beginning, middle, and late stages of Yeong-hye’s obsession. The first comes from her husband, the closest person to her new attitude and also the one affected most by her choices; the second is delivered by her brother-in-law, not in close contact with Yeong-hye but suffering from obsessions of his own; and the third is told by Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, who must deal with her sister’s illness and her husband’s transgressions.
Kang writes in ethereal prose, with detailed descriptions that often drift toward dream states. The Vegetarian‘s opening act layers on eerie suspense as Yeong-hye begins to change; her husband documents the strange affect his wife has assumed, notating all of the things she used to do but doesn’t anymore. One of those things besides vegetarianism happens to be that she doesn’t like wearing a bra; to her husband, this is a strange decision that often embarrasses him, especially during a dinner party with his work. Kang’s first-person narrative here is excellent, documenting without judgement the experiences Yeong-hye’s husband encounters and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Her husband is more worried about his appearance around others than about his wife’s well-being, and it’s only when her behavior begins to affect his own habits that he truly cares about what Yeong-hye is up to.
It’s a strong start to The Vegetarian, mixing tension with themes of cultural expectation. Kang’s writing is not sympathetic to its male characters, and they often make some horrible choices of their own. But it’s an intentional decision, one that is steeped in Vietnam’s patriarchal society; The Vegetarian isn’t so much stereotyping as it is amplifying traditional values and documenting the stifling effect that has on both women and men.
Obsession is a strong topic within the novel, and Kang returns to it in the second act when Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes so enraptured with a Mongolian mark on Yeong-hye’s backside that he begins to imagine intercourse with her as part of an artistic act. Kang touches on taboos, another cultural construct that can be just as damaging as obsession. But again, Kang allows the reader to interpret the meaning rather than giving a clear message here; in essence, there is no right or wrong way to feel about these characters, only a gray area that asks for moral reasoning.
The Vegetarian‘s last portion is its weakest, told from Yeong-hye’s sister’s point-of-view after Yeong-hye has been hospitalized for her anorexia. Kang withholds judgment for most of the novel, but The Vegetarian‘s final act lacks the glue to bind all three of these vignettes together. The book ends without much fanfare, an exploration of mental illness, obsession, and perception that could have used a bit more guidance from the author; it’s not clear the intention of Kang’s story, and while reader interpretation is good to have, there’s a necessity to get a glimpse through Kang’s lens into the whole situation as well.
But The Vegetarian prompts some important reflection, a depiction of how difficult acceptance can be. Its exaggeration of unhealthy obsession and the inscrutability of others is haunting; Kang’s three perspectives are different enough to highlight the theme, and her strong prose fluidly carries the reader. This cerebral drama is eerie not because of some otherwordly monster, but because the people closest can always remain, in some ways, a stranger.