I want to start this blog by thanking all of the bookshops that displayed ‘The Vegetarian’ so prominently on their shelves. I’m fairly certain this is why I picked it up, and so I can credit them for introducing me to one of my top reads of the year so far.
I don’t know a whole lot about South Korean culture, but it’s clear from this book that meat is very important in it. To abstain is something of a taboo; in a lesser book this would become a point of cultural trivia, here it is the first in an exploration of taboos and what it means to break away from society’s expectations.
The eponymous vegetarian is Yeong-Hye, an unremarkable housewife whose self-effacing character becomes increasingly dehumanised as she withdraws from the meat-eating world around her. Although the story is about her, she is an elusive figure; her attempts to escape from the taint of all things animal mean that she can be observed, but never fully understood. Instead, the novel is told through the eyes of three people who are forced to confront their own identities in their attempts to understand hers. Her determinedly conventional husband, her artistic brother-in-law and, most tragically, her sister all try to help her find a place in the world as her vegetarianism takes an ever stronger hold of her.
This is an immensely powerful book. It begins with Yeong-Hye suffering brutal nightmares ‘A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit, Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin‘ which stop her sleeping and mean she is increasingly unable to tolerate anything but the most bland of vegetarian diets. The nightmares are described in hallucinatory graphic detail and give readers clues that her family lack when understanding why she refuses to either provide or take advantage of the love and comfort that meat represents.
As Yeong-Hye moves in and out of hospital, the increasingly small number of people who will care or take responsibility for her are forced to confront their own darkest physical and emotional desires. Her vulnerability arguably leads to an increased detachment to the world. As she becomes tied up in her step-brother’s erotic fantasies for example, the narration makes it hard to unpick who is the most exploited in a desperately uncomfortable relationship.
Every section of the book is like a beautifully realised tableau of emotion, but, on this reading at least, I think Kang saves the best till last. In the final third of the novel, In-Hye, Yeong-Hye’s capable and caring sister, desperately tries to keep a hold of her own identity as Yeong-Hye herself becomes fixated on escaping the physical confines of her psychiatric home and human body. The relationship between the sisters allows the dissolution of the family, of society and of the self to be explored with clinical precision.
I realise that this blog is sounding rather calm and reflective as opposed to wildly enthusiastic, this is because of the complexity and depth of the novel. It’s very hard to think of appropriate superlatives to fit Kang’s quite stunning prose and vision. I wasn’t exaggerating when I wrote that this has been one of my top reads this year. I really hope more of Kang’s work will be available in English as soon as possible, and I hope that Deborah Smith will continue to translate them. Judging by ‘The Vegetarian’, South Korea has a huge amount to offer the English reading world.