Han Kang, “The Vegetarian” (2007) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith) – This one’s pretty harrowing, and I guess an ironic one to post for thanksgiving all things considered. A Korean woman decides to go vegetarian and everyone freaks out! That’s the beginning, anyway. The three parts of the novel are each told by a different relative of Yeong-hye, a seemingly ordinary South Korean woman. The first part, centering around her vegetarianism, is told by her husband, a self-professed mediocrity who likes Yeong-hye for her seeming ordinariness. Yeong-hye decides to go vegetarian in response to some very bad dreams she had. Apparently, in Korea, this is a big deal, though I get the sense the bigger deal is Yeong-hye’s quiet refusal to obey her husband and go back to eating and cooking meat. She also defies her father and the rest of her family in a harrowing scene at a family dinner. All of the best meat dishes are there, and so is her father, a Vietnam War vet and old-school brutal patriarch. He tries to force Yeong-hye to eat meat, slapping her, forcing meat into her mouth, as the rest of the family looks on, weakly protesting at best.
Yeong-hye cuts herself in front of her family in response and winds up hospitalized. Her husband, convinced he’s the real victim in all this — he just wants a normal obedient wife and is being deprived! — divorces her and we move on to the second part, narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother in law. He’s a hacky video artist who becomes sexually obsessed with Yeong-hye, with the idea of painting her body and his in flower patterns and having sex with her. This section gives off a really real-seeming scum and skeeze feeling as Yeong-hye continues to worsen, haunted by dreams and by isolation, and the artist exploits her and ruins what’s left of both their lives.
Lastly, there’s the section narrated by Yeong-hye’s longsuffering sister, who becomes the sole point of contact for Yeong-hye when she is again hospitalized. This time, she refuses to eat, insisting she is turning into a plant and only needs sunlight and water. This section is just sad, a brutal look at failure and madness. Why didn’t anyone help Yeong-hye when everything began, with the dreams? How did it come to this place with her starving herself? Well, the patriarchy certainly didn’t help matters, between her reckless selfish husband and brutal abusive dad. But Han suggests that Yeong-hye’s response to the violence and selfishness of the world is not necessarily a rational response, but a consistent one- escape from humanity and animal life altogether into another type of existence. All told, this is an unsettling and well-executed read. ****’