The Vegetarian by Han Kang: A book review.

The vegetarian is a story narrated in three long chapters by the protagonist’s husband, her brother in law and then, finally her own sister, In-hye. I am not quite sure what I feel about this book but I have one word for it and that is: Disturbing. The book itself is quite dark and has very graphic scenes. The whole book screams trigger warning. It contains animal cruelty, depression, mental illnesses and suicide. It was hard for me to finish this book but I really wanted to know what happens to Yeong-Hye.

Yeong Hye is born and raised in a family with an abusive father, a subdued mother and superstitious beliefs surrounding her. She endures all the beatings, listens to everything her parents said and does everything to please them. Married unhappily to a man who is a sexist and only expects good food and sex out of his wife, Yeong Hye undergoes more mental distress. One day she dreams of a face, a bloody rotten face and dreams of herself eating the rotten bloody meat.
She eventually stops eating meat because of that dream and rebels with her family and husband and to no avail, attempts suicide, which leads to her husband leaving her.

The second chapter, narrated by her brother in law, is another chapter with a whirlwind of emotions. It talks about the primal acts of Yeong Hye and how dissociated from reality she becomes. She lets go of all the societal norms and pressures and treats herself as someone who doesn’t belong where she was. Her brother in law, attracted to Yeong Hye with an inexplicable force, engages in sexual intercourse with her, knowing fully well that she is mentally ill. Yeong Hye consents to it believing that the scandalous act would relieve her of her misery and the unstoppable dreams that kept her awake.

The third chapter is narrated by Yeong Hye’s sister, In Hye, who explains her relationship with her sister and reflects upon how she could have prevented everything that happened from the very beginning if she had been a little cautious. She blames herself for everything that had happened and the reader is able to understand the darkness she, herself, is in. In Hye is the only one who eventually understands her sister and what she is going through since she finds herself heading towards the same path as her sister. She reflects on her past and realises the meaninglessness of it. The story is about a woman who tries constantly to get rid of the life out of her. Frustrated with being human, she wishes to become a tree. She perceives and starts to believe that she is a tree and relies only on water and sunlight to exist.

The ending is very abrupt but meaningful, in my opinion. In my interpretation, the ending signifies hope for In Hye. In an attempt to wake Yeong Hye up, she realises that it is high time that she picks herself up as well.

The contrast between Yeong Hye and In Hye is the fact that In hye is caught in a maternal responsibility of taking care of her son, which proved to be a tether that held In Hye to the world. It is the case with most people, it is their loved ones. But when the essence of life is driven out, there is nothing left but meaninglessness. And In Hye realised this before losing her essence. She is reminded of the efforts her son made just to make her laugh and realises that she is valued and she is needed. Yeong Hye, on the other hand, is lonely, rejected by her parents and divorced, has nothing left to hold on to. The ending talks about green flaming trees which can be interpreted as the rage In Hye feels towards the trees that took Yeong Hye away or simply an expression of determination by In Hye that she will save her sister and herself from this terrible dream.

Check out this book on Goodreads: The Vegetarian


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