Last January I imposed vegetarianism on my family. Just for the month. We all survived. It was pretty good actually; the challenge of rethinking our entire menu choices appealed to my need to do something different to herald the new year. We are doing it again in 2018. The kids aren’t happy but took great delight in the realisation they can eat meaty things at the school canteen, which is beyond my jurisdiction.
Our commitment to going veggie is nothing to the “completely unremarkable” Yeong-hye’s in Hang Kang’s award winning novel, The Vegetarian. Being vegetarian is not well received in Korea. In fact, it’s viewed with suspicion. A violent and disturbing dream is the catalyst to Yeong-hye’s dietary decsion. The following day she throws away all the meat in the house and refuses to eat anything but vegetables. Her family is unsupportive and none of them understand her choice. The isolation spirals Yeong-hye’s mental and physical well-being to beyond even medical help.
Yeong-hye’s story is told from three points of view over a number of years. The first is her husband’s testament. He describes how her decision is met by other family members and society in general. The second narrator is Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an unsuccessful artist who becomes obsessed with her body and it being the key to his much desired commercial success and artistic acceptance. The last part is told by her sister who guides us through the familial fall-out and feuds that result from Yeong-hye’s decision to turn veggie.
All three sections describe a conservative society not designed to deal with choices outside the mainstream. It is a society obsessed with how others view you and one constantly concerned with reputation when someone dares to break with tradition. Yeong-hye is a frustrating character. She is passionate about her decision yet entirely dispassionate at every point, almost blank and expressionless – we never get her view though and so the 3 narrators describe her with the same lack of passion they are expected to display themselves in a community so obsessed with the “right” image.
This is a visceral and violent novel (there is a force-feeding scene that made me feel physically sick), which goes against the grain of everything I associate with being vegetarian. Yet it works in this context. The only means of breaking out of the social constraints placed on Yeong-hye, is for her to abuse her body and maintain control of her mental and physical self. The unpleasant scenes are necessary.
The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International prize in 2016 for a reason; because it is unique and extraordinary.