Insanity or shimmering mysticism?
SPOILER ALERT: This review contains a few plot outcomes.
Insightful and magical, The Vegetarian by Han King, coaxes the reader into an examination of what might underlie aberrant individual human behavior, or mental illness. First published in 2007 in Korean, the book was only recently translated into English.
Organized into three parts, the story is told sequentially in three voices, each reacting to what appears to be the rapid onset of mental illness in an otherwise unremarkable young woman named Yeong-hye. The first story is from the point of view of her businessman husband; the second from an artist who is also Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law (by marriage to her elder sister); and the third from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s elder sister, a young mother and shop-owner.
The plot unfolds from the instant a decision is made by Yeong-hye one morning. In response to a dream (dream description and symbolism are prominent in this book), she decides to henceforth never eat meat or animal products again.
First, the marital, familial and professional repercussions of this decision are described through the voice of her husband: Yeong-hye rejects sex with him due to his “meat smell” and becomes unwilling to participate in a charade of dinner parties with work colleagues where meat is at the centerpiece; her extended family, including her parents — feeling public shame at her stubbornness — try to force feed her meat in a dramatic showdown.
In the second part, the brother-in-law describes the unexpected and overpowering sexual attraction he newly feels for her, all mixed up with his own artistic awakening (after years of stalled creativity) catalyzed by Yeong-hye’s rejection of meat. His actions will cost him dearly, and yet he cannot stop himself.
In the final part, the elder sister is given voice, as the full tragic effect plays out across multiple marriages and family members, and we glimpse the possible childhood origins of Yeong-hye’s apparent illness. Is her behavior a rational protective response of a psyche injured by childhood abuse?
The writing as translated is strong and lyrical, and the plot, while unevenly surrealistic, succeeds. A particularly intriguing aspect of the book is the deft manner in which the author tracks how the initial act of vegetarianism expands, over time and in congruence with the piling up of reactions to Yeong-hye’s behavior and, eventually, consumes her human identity. She believes she will become, willingly and ecstatically, first a flower and finally a tree. Thus, she ultimately rejects any human sustenance, not just meat, in favor of sunlight against her naked body. Will she die of starvation?
This narrative trajectory sets up what at first appears to be a portrait of insanity. Yet, simultaneously, largely through the elder sister’s story, the author gently brings forward the core question: Is Yeong-hye insane or, rather, is she experiencing a mystical connection to a collective or universal force that others cannot see?
Filial love and compassion allow the sister to consider if Yeong-hye might be uniquely shining a light on the ridiculousness of embodied human existence broadly, and on her own individual joyless life of endless endurance. Reflecting on Yeong-hye’s behavior, the sister confronts the personal revelations left in her wake: “She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never know they were there.”
A fine book, recommended.