Here’s something a little different. The (former) roommate suggested we start a ‘book club’. Okay, it’s two people, but still! I got to pick the first book, and since I’d heard good things about Han Kang’s Man Booker-winning THE VEGETARIAN, I chose that. She found it creepy and unnerving, and so did I, but I *love* it. I think it’s my favorite read of the year so far.
A deceptively slim tale of a South Korean housewife who suddenly becomes a vegetarian after a dream, the novel is divided into three acts. “The Vegetarian” is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brutish, chauvinistic husband, who sees his formerly ‘submissive’ wife’s small act of independence as an insult to his authority. “Mongolian Mark” revolves around her brother-in-law, a video artist, and his sexual obsession with his wife’s sister. Finally, “Flaming Trees” is told from the point of view of her responsible, seemingly more emotionally stable older sister In-hye, who wrestles with demons of her own about their past as Yeong-hye becomes increasingly cut off from social norms.
I’m going to cut right to the bone: this is a magnificent nightmare of a book. It’s weird, visceral, and spellbinding, its economical prose and plotting belied by some of the most deliriously extreme and haunting imagery I’ve ever encountered. Sex, violence, art, and nature are major motifs, but like vegetarianism, those are really just the trappings for a complicated not-quite-allegory about individual autonomy.
I don’t want to shortchange THE VEGETARIAN’s social critique–consider the rampant, disturbingly casual theme of male entitlement to women’s bodies, illustrated by how marital rape seems expected to naturally follow patriarchal control. But though the Korean family structure in this novel forms a stand-in for a repressive society, it’s not so easy to call Yeung-hye a figure of capital-I Individual empowerment or liberation. The question of free will in this novel is a messy one. Yeung-hye’s small act of bodily self-assertion seemingly starts off innocuous, but genuinely becomes dangerous; the same can be said for the moment when staidly In-hye abandons her child. The violations the women are subjected to are horrific, but the fact that ultimately, it might be impossible to truly be innocent from human violence might be even more deeply disturbing.