The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.

What a great opening line! Tells you all you need to you know about our narrator, Mr. Cheong. Like the wife he described, he himself is a man both mediocre and middling by choice and design. Like the sentence strongly implies, his feelings for his wife are flat and bloodless. Mr. Cheong’s life is disrupted when his wife Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat after she is tormented by vivid, bloody nightmares.

From throwing out all animal products, Yeong-hye proceeds to adhere to an extreme vegan diet. Then she abstains from sex, withdraws from conversation, grows alarmingly thin, and displays increasingly disturbed behavior.

The Vegetarian focuses on Yeong-hye’s family rather than Yeong-hye. The woman is almost an empty vessel and her vegetarianism purely a plot device. What we read is the reactions of those around her and we quickly get to see them for who they really are.

The Vegetarian is divided into 3 parts: “The Vegetarian”, where Yeong-hye first becomes vegetarian and is narrated from Mr. Cheong’s perspective, “Mongolian Mark”, when Yeong-hye’s lifestyle grows ever more extreme and her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her, and “Flaming Trees”, where Yeong-hye’s sister is left to pick up the pieces of her life while managing Yeong-hye’s welfare.

While The Vegetarian is a novel that invites many interpretations, I see it as a portrayal of how fragile our place in society is. Our safety net of spouse and family all have their own individual lives and careers and worlds to attend to. Who gets to care for you if your mental state deteriorates?

I’m factoring in your family’s love for you. If you are married to a Mr. Cheong, spousal relationship isn’t marked by affection but by briskness and efficiency. Your chances of getting abandoned should you exhibit problematic behavior increases greatly. Better pray you have other people who love you.

In The Vegetarian, many of those around Yeong-hye are left looking callous. Yeong-hye’s sister, who tries the hardest, is left drained by her responsibilities for both her sister and her own family.

The mental disorder of a single person can create untold chaos on his/her circle. How loving and compassionate can we humans be until we grow weary and abandon those who are struggling? How kind are we, at the end of the day? Is unconditional love a lie?

I was enchanted by Han Kang’s writing style: fluid, effortless, and clean. Very compact yet clearly detailed. I’m always drawn to describing this particular crisp prose as “neat”. Like well-organized space, this writing style doesn’t take up more words and pages than it needs but everything you want and need are there anyway.

While the first portion “The Vegetarian” is nothing short of masterful, its following segments “Mongolian Mark” and “Flaming Trees” are not as good. “Mongolian Mark” is surreal in some parts, with a plot that seemed pointless at times – a complete change, and a downgrade in my opinion, from the dynamic realism of “The Vegetarian”. Both story and authenticity of feeling picked up again in “Flaming Trees” but never reached the sublime heights of simplicity and depth in “The Vegetarian”.