Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is one of these novels that I fundamentally fail to understand. There – I’ve said it – think of me as badly of me as you like.
The story begins when a hitherto well-behaved and traditional wife, Yeong-Hye, suddenly decides to become a vegetarian. Her husband and her family are outraged. But is it really a simple case of ethical guilt and concern about animal welfare or is Yeong-Hye simply anorexic?
It was a gripping read. When I read the first few pages, I did not want to put it down. Having said that, I am not quite sure of how the structure of the novel worked. When the Part I, narrated by the husband, finished, I was surprised to see a third-person narrator take over for the two subsequent parts of the book. It was a bit of a strange twist, structure-wise. Likewise, the voice of the Yeong-hye appears in the first section of the book (occasionally), then not at all in the second, then I think once in the third part. I am not quite sure why. It doesn’t really mirror the progress in her insanity, or the attitude of the narrator and his focalizing character towards her. There doesn’t really seem to be a structural reason for these interruptions.
The flow of time in the novel is not strictly linear- it focuses on particular moments and then accelerates – only to turn back to character’s reminiscences of the same crucial moment. In the Kindle edition it is also quite difficult to tell the difference between section breaks and paragraph breaks, which leads to the occasional confusion.
The novel is heavy with symbolism: the white and black birds interspersed throughout the narrative, the woods that point to Yeong-hye’s delirium, and finally even her reluctance to eat meat, are all incidents weighted with meaning.
There’s a strange paradox here: all the characters surrounding Yeong-hye seem to be reading her behaviour as erratic , whereas the reader is invited to interpret it as full of meaning. It is only in the last part of the book that her sister acknowledges the eerie rationale behind Yeong-hye’s behaviour. By the way I had to reread the ending twice, as I had no clue as to what was going on. Maybe I’m just groggy and coldy and not particularly lucid, but I’m still not quite sure
Despite some comprehension issues, I admired parts 1 and 3 of the book, but I did not understand the structural point of the second part. Unfortunately, I cannot really talk too much about it without giving too much away… but suffice it to say that I am not entirely sure whether the events depicted in it are a continuation of the theme of sexual violence against women, or are supposed to be a joyous artistic liberation from all norms of sanity. There’s a sentence in part 3, which emphasizes “living” rather than “enduring” which makes me worry about that it is the latter, which I really don’t like. Cough. Nothing wrong with enduring from one day to the next, if it needs to be done.
This is definitely a book that literary critics will love to analyze, as one can theorize forever about the symbolic relevance of one scene to another. It’s also an incredibly gloomy and dispiriting read: sexual and physical violence recurs again and again – all in the context of a mind that is slowly unraveling. But I’m not sure what I think of this book. It has received great critical accolades (indeed the Man Booker Translation Prize), but at times it feels like an unpolished artwork, well-written but with structural wobbles and loose ends. Whether that’s due entirely to the subject matter (madness is not the most orderly subject possible) , I cannot honestly decide.