The Short Version: After a woman renounces meat and begins a strange and bleak mental spiral, those near to her – her husband, her brother-in-law, and finally her sister – must try to come to terms with/understand a woman they thought they knew.
The Review: There’s nothing strange about vegetarianism, superficially. In the last eighteen months, I’ve become far less of a meat eater than ever before in my life, thanks in large part to cooking with a vegetarian all the time – and while it is still sometimes lambasted as a hippie thing or a thing that some red-blooded Americans don’t understand, it strikes me that vegetarianism is pretty well accepted/understood in our society today. So damned if Han Kang hasn’t absolutely flipped that on its head with this strange, unsettling, sometimes downright disturbing novel. I did not realize that vegetarianism could be frightening – but then, of course, the human body is capable far more than we often give it credit for.
The novel begins as told from the point of view of a Mr. Cheong, a pretty average and ordinary worker-bee whose wife decides to become a strict vegetarian seemingly overnight. She had a dream – a dream that is recounted to the reader in small, almost poetic bursts of italicized writing in the midst of Mr. Cheong’s far more workman-like narration – that deeply upset her, involving blood and meat and torture, and so her decision was to drop meat altogether. Her family, once alerted, begins a campaign to bring her back to a healthier lifestyle. The tension and dread are continually winding during this chapter, with Mr. Cheong’s impatience rising to the surface through his narration and a sense that something must be off about Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism growing almost by the paragraph. A shockingly violent confrontation at a family dinner concludes this chapter and it’s hard not to feel confused and scared along with the family: what is happening with this woman?
The second chapter then shifts, both in tone and point of view. We’re now with Yeong-he’s brother-in-law (married to her older sister) and he has developed an intense sexual fixation with Yeong-he, based largely on the discovery of a “Mongolian Mark” on her behind. This section has a dream-like quality, reminiscent of both Haruki Murakami and David Lynch: the brother-in-law is an artist and he eventually seduces (if that’s the right word) Yeong-he by painting her naked body with flowers and eventually getting his own painted. It’s a strange and always-slightly-surreal chapter that builds off the previous one in subtle but potent ways, specifically relating to sex. Mr. Cheong rapes Yeong-he at least once (it is implied that he takes her by force more frequently after that first time) but seems to have lost all sexual interest in her – whereas her brother-in-law has suddenly developed a very particular sexual interest, but one that still doesn’t truly take her desires into account. Even the way the sex scene is described upsets the apple cart of our understanding: it seems consensual and like they’re both deeply engaged… but we’re then given to understand that there are (/have been) tears, possibly some amount of struggle or at least a moment of overwhelming, and by virtue of the fact that we are again hearing from the man in the story and not Yeong-he, it’s hard not to see it as another example of a man forcing himself onto a vulnerable woman. Han Kang (and her fantastic translator) pull off the almost impossible trick of writing basically both sides of this story at once and leaving it unclear whether or not Yeong-he was engaged (or even truly conscious) during this experience. The lack of true resolution, the way the writing lives in that liminal state, is profound and unsettling in a way equal to (albeit different from) the shocking conclusion of the first chapter.
The third and final chapter is in many ways the most disturbing, but also the most unsatisfying. We’re now with the sister, the one whose husband we just saw naked and painted with flowers and trying to jump off a balcony after being discovered in flagrante delicto. Some time has passed and Yeong-he has been institutionalized. Not only that, she’s clearly more than vegetarian: she has become (or, possibly, has been this whole time and we’ve only just seen it diagnosed) anorexic and suicidal. She’s also delusional, believing that she has in fact become (or at least is becoming) a plant and that she can live without anything but water and sunlight. This, of course, is not true and the novel veers into some downright body-horror as the doctors must attempt to intubate her in order to get any kind of nutrients into her body. There is a numbing quality to these scenes, as though In-hye (the sister) cannot quite process them fully – which is not surprising, as I can’t imagine I’d be able to process a scenario like this either.
But this distance also means that the chapter’s psychological impact is diminished. It turns out In-hye has been having strange dreams, too, and the last pages of the novel seem to imply that In-hye has been the stronger sister, turning her back on the selfish interpretation of those dreams in order to remain steadfast in her work and her life whereas Yeong-he has destroyed everything in order to follow what her dreams were telling her. This mirroring, though, didn’t come through for me and I found myself quickly losing steam as the book (barely more than a novella, clocking in at just over 180 pages) drew to a close. Where the first two sections seemed to present inversions and twists based on each other, this coda of a story felt like it needed that matching counter-story to drive its points home. Although it was far and away the most unsettling of the three stories in this book, I found it also the least effective – which diminishes the book as a whole, for me. I was wishing there was more not because I loved the writing (although I did) but because I felt like the story was unfinished, even as the ostensible throughline of Yeong-he’s life came to its conclusion.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A profoundly unsettling novel, full of psychological disturbances and moments of pure physical revulsion. But there is also great beauty in Han Kang’s prose and the skill with which she peels away these layers of strangeness around things so quotidian as food, family, and sex. Although I found that the novel lost steam as it powered through the final narrator’s segment, I was still engaged throughout on the animalistic level of being creeped out – and I feel that the novel may linger, especially as I continue to unpack the ways in which violence was done both by and to Yeong-he. There is a potency here that suffuses the reader almost insidiously, creeping into you long before you begin to notice.