When my brother became a vegetarian in his teens it caused a bit of a flap. This was the mid-1970s, we lived on a council estate in Liverpool, and the nearest we’d got to vegetarianism was eating fish on Fridays. So to find we were living with someone who’d stopped eating meat was like being given an exotic pet. It was exciting (‘My brother’s a vegetarian,’ was a sure-fire way to get everyone’s attention in school) but came with a sack full of problems, the most pressing one being: what on earth do we feed it?
My brother’s vegetarianism stopped as abruptly as it had begun a few years later when he came home from university for the holidays and said he’d have sausages for tea. My mum mouthed ‘don’t ask’ behind his back, in case we made it into a ‘thing’ and he changed his mind again.
In the intervening years she’d bought various vegetarian cookbook and tried as hard as she could with limited knowledge and limited budget to dish up nutritious non-meat versions of our meat and two veg diet. (Baked potatoes filled with peanut-butter-and-sweetcorn seemed to feature regularly, as did nut roast on Sundays.)
While my brother might well have been driven to eat meat again by my mum’s well-meaning but monotonously nut-based menus, there is no such change of heart for Yeong-hye, the heroine of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
The novel has fewer than 200 pages, more like a novella by today’s standards, but don’t be lulled by its length or innocuous title; this little book packs a powerful punch. It’s a terrifying tale of violence, sex, madness, and self-destruction that begins with Yeong-hye refusing to eat meat because of a ‘dream’ – actually a blood-soaked nightmare – and ends with her refusing to eat anything, restrained in a psychiatric hospital, a doctor forcing a feeding tube down her throat. In between her body is painted all over in flowers and she’s filmed having sex with her artist brother-in-law, similarly painted, for a video art work. Yes, really.
The story unfolds in three sections – I almost typed ‘acts’ because in many ways it feels more like a play than a novel. The first section, also titled The Vegetarian, is from the viewpoint of Yeong-hye’s husband, who we only ever know as Mr Chang. The second section, Mongolian Mark, is told by the artist brother-in-law whose name we never learn and who is married to Yeong-hye’s elder sister, In-hye. The third and final section, Flaming Trees, is from In-hye’s perspective.
You might have spotted that none of the story is told from Yeong-hye’s point of view, which, of course, is significant. Because The Vegetarian isn’t about vegetarianism at all (as you might have gathered): it’s about power.
Yeong-hye rebels against the ‘unremarkable’ man who marries her not for love but because she is ‘completely ordinary’, and against their ‘carefully ordered existence’, using the only weapon she has: her body. First she refuses to eat meat, fish, eggs, and milk; then she refuses to sleep with Mr Chang because he ‘smells of meat.’ When her father tries to re-assert patriarchal authority by ordering Mr Chang and her brother to hold her arms while he forces meat into her mouth (a precursor of the force-feeding at the hospital) she responds by slitting her wrists.
As Yeong-hye’s madness progresses her body becomes more liberated. Before she had her ‘dream’ the one thing about her that was ‘unusual’ was that she didn’t like wearing a bra. Afterwards ‘she kept trying to take her clothes off and expose herself to the sunlight.’
This is not promiscuity, though. If anything, it’s as if she’s becoming more plant than human. Her brother-in-law eroticises the bruise-like Mongolian mark on her buttock yet also sees it as ‘a mark of photosynthesis….more vegetal than sexual.’ She agrees to the sex tape for ‘the flowers on his body’. At the hospital she goes missing and is found ‘in an isolated spot deep in the woods…standing there stock still and soaked with rain as if she herself was one of those glistening trees.’
Yeong-hye’s foil is her sister, In-hye. In-hye is a prisoner of conformity, always doing ‘her best’ as a ‘daughter’, ‘older sister’, ‘wife’, ‘mother’, and ‘owner of a shop,’ and sees Yeong-hye’s behaviour as ‘magnificent irresponsibility’ – a wonderful phrase that resonates with envy even as it condemns. Yeong-hye is ‘soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross…And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”
This is without doubt one of the strangest stories I’ve ever read. Han Kang is South Korean, born in 1970, meaning she would have grown up in a military dictatorship. Could Yeong-hye’s character therefore carry an even wider political significance?
Rating: *** Highly recommended