“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”
Thus begins South Korean writer Han Kang’s brisk, melancholy novel, “The Vegetarian,’’ about Yeong-hye, a housewife whose decision to give up meat has startling and lurid consequences.
Told in three parts from the points of view of three family members affected by Yeong-hye’s decision — her passive, confused husband, Mr. Cheong, her besotted brother-in-law, and her older sister, In-hye — the novel begins as a realistic portrayal of domestic life in contemporary South Korea and grows increasingly allegorical and enigmatic, especially in the last section. Deborah Smith’s English translation is subtle but sophisticated, retaining much of the power and lyricism of Kang’s writing.
American readers, many of whom have embraced vegetarianism in growing numbers, may find it difficult to understand the extreme reaction Yeong-hye’s choice produces in her family. But this is a deceptive novel, its canvas much larger than the mild social satire that one initially imagines. Kang has bigger issues to raise — the effects of childhood abuse, the damage caused by loveless unions, the patriarchy that victimizes both men and women, and finally, the question of whether women have claim to their own bodies. The matter of female autonomy assumes urgency and poignancy given the almost obsessive value South Koreans place on physical attributes — the nation currently leads the world in the number of plastic surgery cases per capita, with women as young as 16 going under the knife.
In fact, one of the strengths here is that Yeong-hye’s reasons are never spelled out — to her baffled husband’s incessant questioning she has only one, cryptic answer: “I had a dream.’’
But Kang shows us the quality of Yeong-hye’s dreams — they are violent, macabre, bloody. We quickly understand, even as the rest of her family remains resolutely unsympathetic, that Yeong-hye’s decision is neither fad nor diet. It is penance, atonement for taking the lives of animals and perhaps also for her father’s gruesome killing of a dog that had attacked her in childhood. In any case, she is tormented: “The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there . . . their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.”
In fact, the only animal sacrifice Yeong-hye is now willing to make is her own body. After she slits her wrist rather than be force-fed meat by her tyrannical father, we begin to realize the extent of her mutiny as she begins an inexorable slide into deliberate starvation. In the final section of the novel, which focuses on the older sister In-hye, we realize that what Yeong-hye really wants is to become a plant or a tree herself — and the title of the novel assumes a new depth and meaning.
In some ways, this last section lacks the energy of the first two, concerned as it is with In-hye visiting her comatose sister in the mental hospital where she has been placed. In other ways, this third act expands the scope of the novel from the peculiar choices made by a single, unhappy woman to our growing, if diffused, realization of what horrors of patriarchy Yeong-hye is battling. As In-hye watches her younger sister refuse all food, she remembers moments from their childhood that she has preferred to forget and must now take fresh stock of her own cautious and conventional life choices.
And yet, the novel makes clear that the women are not the only victims. Even Yeong-hye’s husband, the befuddled, mediocre, unsympathetic Mr. Cheong, is the victim of his own low expectations for his marriage. In-hye’s artistic husband, who remains unnamed in the novel, develops an obsession with his sister-in-law and is destroyed by his passion.
There is a passing reference to his guilt about avoiding death in the 1980 Gwangju pro-democracy uprising, where the army killed scores of student protesters, in what became a turning point in South Korean history. A former girlfriend comments on how his art changed, “as though you were atoning for surviving the May massacre.”
Is Yeong-hye really mad as her family and doctors come to believe? Or is it the society around her — her violent father, her passive sister, her unhappy brother-in-law whose sexual desire for her is indivisible from his passion for his art — that are being indicted here? Kang never tells us. In-hye seems more and more convinced by her sister’s opting out and perhaps even grows envious of it. She, too, is seduced by Yeong-hye’s dreamlike state. But there is also this question she poses to her: “We have to wake up at some point, don’t we?”
By Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Hogarth, 188 pp., $21
Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novels “The Space Between Us’’ and the recent, “The Story Hour.’’ She lives in Cleveland.