Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.
Yeong-hye is an unremarkable and mostly passive woman, living an unremarkable and passive life with her husband. Until she has a bloody and frightening dream. She becomes vegetarian (really vegan), in a culture where vegetarianism is rare, trying to find a way to atone for and live without the violence in the dream. Her family react negatively, aggressively, as Yeong-hye finds giving up meat isn’t enough for her, and goes further.
The story is told in three parts: from the perspective of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. The reader only gets a glimpse of Yeong-hye’s own voice in the brief re-telling of her dreams in part one. Sometimes when authors do this it makes the central character one-dimensional or caricatured, but it works really well in The Vegetarian. All of the people around Yeong-hye think they know and understand her, but they’re either unwilling or unable to actually hear her, and as a result project their own expectations and desires onto her, pushing her further away. As the reader, we feel like we know better than these narrators, but we don’t, not really, because we are unable to hear her either. Despite never getting a true understanding of Yeong-hye and her reasons for her behaviour, she still feels like a whole, real character.
The women in this novel are often oppressed by the expectations and/or violence of the men in the novel. In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, is successful and works incredibly hard, but also realises that her whole life has been working around, and occasionally placating the violence of, her husband and her father, and that perhaps this isn’t the life she wanted. Yeong-hye is beaten by her father as a child, raped by her husband when she is no longer ‘dutiful’, and sexually fetishised by her brother-in-law. It’s clear that the world of the book is patriarchal and misogynistic, but it’s not clear what Yeong-hye’s actions mean. Is it about taking control of her body for herself, regardless of what they may mean for her life? Or is it more about a kind of self-destruction in reaction to the world in which she lives? Perhaps it’s a little of both.
I loved the writing style. It has the kind of brevity and space to breathe that I like, but also some truly beautiful sentences. Each section, though each is told as a continuation of the story from the last, is written in a slightly different tense. Though this can be a little jarring at first as you orientate yourself, it helps you to adjust to a different perspective.
I don’t know anything about South Korean culture, so I have no idea if The Vegetarian is a comment on society there. But I actually don’t think that matters. It’s a book broadly about trying to understand a seemingly incomprehensible other person from your own perspective, about the relationship between humans and nature, about misogyny, about violence, about mental health, and about wanting a different kind of life.