Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.
Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.
The Vegetarian is a book of three parts, all (to me) felt very different – not just in content but how each section is written.
We start the book reading from Yeong-hye’s husband as he describes how his marriage changes when Yeong-hye announces she is now a vegetarian (though it sounds closer to a vegan diet). We can tell from the first page that her husband is not a nice man. He’s disparaging towards his wife, openly saying she is an unremarkable and run of the mill woman. He seems to have no nice words to say about her and is incredibly unsupportive when she stops eating meat (perhaps partly because, back in 2007, meat-free diets were not as popular and certainly not in Korea). Some of the aspects of their relationship is really shocking and made me hate him more and more. A lot happens in this part, and it feels quite frenzied at times. I think it was my favourite section as it really gripped me.
Part one is an uncomfortable, shocking portrayal of a woman experiencing a mental health crisis. We move into part 2 and, through her brother-in-law’s eyes, see her odd relationship with him develop, and then part three moves to her sister’s perspective. Things become a bit slower as we move through the book. We never actually read things from Yeong-hye’s point of view, so it was hard to know what was going on exactly with her.
There are some weird, disturbing passages that make you sit back and wonder what exactly you’re reading. There are also some beautifully written passages (some of which are also these disturbing passages) and these are just as impactful.
Don’t think that because The Vegetarian is a short read, it won’t be heavy in its themes or that it’ll be an easy read. I know I won’t have picked up properly on everything that’s packed into this short but impactful novella – I’ll bet a lot has gone over my head, and there’s plenty of parts I didn’t really get- but I still really appreciated (“enjoyed” feels like the wrong word here) it. It’s a very interesting read and one that will probably stay with you long after you finish it, despite its short length.