I have a problem when it comes to buying books. The problem is that I buy more than I could possibly read. So, I end up with a lot of books on my shelves that have been there for years. My latest read is one of those books. I’ve had a copy of it since it won the Booker Internation Prize in 2016. Despite it being a really short read and despite the fact that I’ve only heard positive things, I just never picked it up. Until this month. Not only did I need a V title but I needed some short reads. I decided to listen to this at work this week but would it be worth the wait?
Han Kang’s novella The Vegetarian is based on a short story called ‘The Fruit of My Woman’. In it, a woman literally starts to turn into a plant. The author reworked this idea into her Booker International Prize winning book about a woman who decides to become a vegetarian. Set in Seoul, it tells the story of Yeong-hye and how her decision to stop eating meat affects her relationship with her family and loved ones. Although, this isn’t a book about vegetarianism or the benefits of a non-meat diet. It is a much more devastating and emotionally scarring kind of book. Certainly not one for the faint-hearted.
The story is told in three parts which focus on Yeong-hye’s husband, her brother in law and her sister. The first section is, perhaps, the most grounded of the three and portrays the violence and misogyny expressed towards women in Korea. When she chooses to give up meat, Yeong-hye makes is making an assertive decision that goes against her husband and father’s wishes. When she refuses to listen to them, the men in her family react negatively and attempt to force their opinions on her. The whole book focuses a lot on the way that Yeong-hye looks but the first section does so in great detail. Her husband often focuses on how she dresses and how it reflects on him. When Yeong-hy does anything against the norm that might give her an ounce of individuality, it is seen as something dangerous and embarrassing to her husband.
The next two sections delve deeper into Yeong-hye’s dwindling mental state and her weakening connection to her community. Her relationship with food gets worse and she eventually refuses to eat entirely. Her relationship with food starts to disintegrate as her self-identity starts to do the same. By the final section, she has almost fully rejected the human world and has turned to the natural world. Almost everyone who interacts with her has written Yeong-hye off as simply mad. It is only her sister who tries to understand what she is going through. This is a book about empathy and our ability to understand the people around us.
I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ve actually got to grips with this book. It’s incredible and really well-written. The imagery is beautiful and the attention to detail is perfect. It is an interesting and awful exploration of gender roles in Korean society. Detailing the fact that women are unable to take ownership of their own life and decisions. She must either live a quiet life of compliance or risk being dismissed a crazy. It’s certainly a harrowing and unforgettable depiction of life. The Vegetarian is a book that I won’t forget any time soon.