The Vegetarian by Han Kang, book review: Society stripped to the bone

The author exposes the pressures heaped on Korean women

Julia Pascal
Saturday 10 January 2015 13:00
Comments
'The Vegetarian' explores the life of a young Korean woman to disturbing effect
'The Vegetarian' explores the life of a young Korean woman to disturbing effect

This short novel is one of the most startling I have read. Set in contemporary South Korea, it explores the life of a young married woman, Yeong-hye, whose decision to give up meat ends up devastating two families. Han Kang’s achievement is to suggest that this defiant act of vegetarianism can smash several lives and threaten the order of a society.

The writing challenges a strict value system that demands devotion to the family, conformism and the denial of erotic freedom. Han Kang, a prize winning novelist, structures the book in three parts. The first narrator is Yeong-hye’s husband, a businessman who thought he had chosen a spouse with an insignificant personality. He is gradually horrified to discover her radical spirit which threatens his career and status. Yeong-hye refuses to wear a bra and embarrasses her husband at a business dinner. This idiosyncratic behaviour, from exposing her nipples to almost starving herself by eating only plants, provokes him to divorce her. Part two is the sexually-charged relationship between Yeong-hye and her brother in law. This is an exciting and imaginative journey into obsession, lust, art and dreams. Part three is told by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, who becomes the abandoned anorexic’s sole carer. Surprisingly she subtly absorbs her sister’s attraction for self-annihilation.

One of the work’s themes is the stripping down of the human body to the bone and the language reflects this sparseness. Names are rarely used. Relatives are mainly denoted as husband, father, mother, exposing a strictly codified social system in which the individual has little importance and family identity dominates. Although the two sisters are named, In-hye’s husband, the catalyst in the story’s dynamic erotic drive, is known only as J.

The tension in Han Kang’s multi-layered novel is the way in which the author reveals how nature, sex and art crash through this polite society. Violence erupts without warning. It is described almost casually. J tries to jump out of the window when discovered betraying his wife with her sister. At the family meal, Yeong-hye’s father beats his daughter and, in front of everyone, brutally tries to force pork into her closed mouth. Yeong-hye slashes her own wrists at the dinner table. She is sent to a psychiatric hospital where medics brutalise her in an agonising description of tubes down noses, blood and vomit.

It is the women who are killed for daring to establish their own identity. The narrative makes it clear it is the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette which murders them. Han Kang is well served by Deborah Smith’s subtle translation in this disturbing book.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in