Violence, obsession, and repressed desires are explored in Han Kang’s visceral, vivid, and undeniably compelling The Vegetarian.
The story begins simple enough; Yeong-Hye decides to turn vegetarian. Despite her husband’s consternation regarding her decision, Yeong-Hye provides only a vague explanation for her sudden change, “I had a dream.” Unbeknownst to her husband and others around her, the nature of the dream is quite grim and savage. Soon, the violence of her dream pervades Yeong-Hye’s reality and everyone around her is subjected to it.
There is no specific plot in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. The novel is told in three parts and from three different perspectives: Yeong-Hye’s husband, Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law, and Yeong-Hye’s sister. The novel’s main theme, about how society’s unattainable expectations can affect a person, slowly reveals itself and the result is catastrophic. Interestingly, as chaos descends on all around her, Yeong-Hye remains stoic, making it seem it is those around her who are deranged. Throughout The Vegetarian, Han Kang offers subtle suggestions about the nature of human beings and of life.
The prose of The Vegetarian moves beautifully—from Mr. Cheong’s self-centered and baffled first-person narration to the macabre nature of Yeong-Hye’s dreams, to the sensual and lascivious descriptions of beautifully painted flowers. With Han Kang’s deliberate and sparse prose, Yeong-Hye’s transformation is seen through the novel’s language.
The Vegetarian is one of those novels that stay with you long after reading it and comes highly recommended.