Year Of Publication: 23rd August 2016
Publisher: Hogarth Press
Pages: 188 ( Paperback )
My rating: 5/5
“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”
After an unsettling dream, Yeong-hye decides that she will no longer eat meat.
What follows next is a tale of horrors told from varying perspectives.
“Life is such a strange thing, she thinks, once she has stopped laughing. Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on ………. And sometimes they even laugh out loud. And they probably have these same thoughts, too, and when they do it must make them cheerlessly recall all the sadness they’d briefly managed to forget.”
It is very hard for me to form coherent sentences after reading this book- one of the reasons why I’ve been putting off trying to write this review.
Han Kang has stated that this book is an allegory of modern day Korea.While this book investigates themes like “women’s autonomy of their bodies in a patriarchal society” and the “social stigma associated with not conforming to social norms”; for me this book was mostly about symbolism.
Yeong-hye’s family constantly tries to “fix” her using brute force while they themselves fail to recognize that they aren’t “normal” themselves. The constant struggle and fixation on her choice to become a vegetarian distracts them from facing their own flaws and shortcomings.They abhor her for accepting herself with all her “imperfections” even though they can’t accept themselves for fear of social estrangement.
“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. 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 even known they were there.”
Told from varying perspectives: her husband – for him Yeong-hye the formerly meek obedient wife is now unacceptable as she dares defy him and is a constant reminder of his failure as a man, her brother in-law – who’s obsessed with the Mongolian Mark on her back and regards her as his muse and finally her sister – who can’t come to terms that she – the “carer” of the family failed to see the signs of the impending insanity in her sister and takes it upon herself to reform and rehabilitate her.
The perspectives made it clear that even though Yeong-hye was suffering from her dream which caused her mental and physical deterioration no one considered asking her about it, or when they did ask, it was in an offhand way which made it clear that they didn’t care enough about her.Instead, each of them made it about themselves in a round-about perverse way.
They either blame themselves for being unable to prevent it (her sister- In-hye) ,are grossly fascinated by it and idealize and dehumanize her (the brother in law) or are completely detached from what Yeong-hye is going through and regard her as an inconvenience(her husband-Mr.Cheong, clearly a misogynist). They all make themselves to be the “victim” in need of consolation, and instead of learning about what Yeong-hye is experiencing ,we’re only able to briefly witness her spiral into insanity through their eyes..
“Her calm acceptance of all these things made her seem to him sacred. Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called a ’person’ ”
Talking about symbolism;birds and plants play a major role throughout the book.
For example, in the first part of the book Yeong-hye bites into a live bird while sitting bare-chested in the hospital grounds (after her attempted suicide) and asks whether she has done anything wrong- as she was being pestered to eat meat but now that she has,she’s met with contempt and it is difficult for her to understand why.
‘I thought it was all because of eating meat’ she said. ‘I thought all I had to do was stop eating meat and then the faces wouldn’t come back. But it didn’t work…now I know. The face is inside my stomach… But I’m not scared any more. There’s nothing to be scared of now.’
Yeong-hye is convinced that in order to rid herself of her dreams she needs to purge her body of its vile contents-to become more plant-like. Thus, when she’s institutionalised in a psychiatric ward she escapes and is found in the forest standing still in order to transform into a tree.
“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…..”
Later, when In-hye is contemplating a similar death to that of her sister’s she fails to take her life.
“She hadn’t been able to find tree that would take her life from her. Some of the trees had refused to accept her”
The book ends in an uncertain tone with Yeong-hye being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia and In-hye contemplating whether she is prone to madness like her sister and how easy might it be for her to embrace it.
“The pain feels like a hole swallowing her up, a source of intense fear and yet, at the same time, a strange, quiet peace.”
Han Kang’s book might only be 188 pages long,but it sure does pack a punch.My interpretation of it might not be a hundred percent accurate but this was what I was able to derive from it. I’ll definitely be reading more of her works in the future.
Have you read The Vegetarian by Han Kang? Or any of her other works?
What are your views.
Do let me know in the comments down below.
Thank You @book.ninja for sending me this wonderful book ❤