Book Review: The Vegetarian (Han Kang)

Despite the inner cover blurb declaring that the central character of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye, ‘spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison . . . becoming — impossibly, ecstatically — a tree’, these words are not the precursor to some magical realist swirl, or some such similar expectation; rather, Han’s work is a depiction of a slow deterioration in mental health, brought on by Yeong-hye’s history of abuse and disregard. Slowly, as she disintegrates, do we collect and collate the pieces (referred to below).

Written in three acts and from the perspectives of three family members in a stretched out chronological order of events, The Vegetarian (Portobello Books, 2015, translated from the original Korean by Deborah Smith) was brought together as a novel from its separate connected stories. In the first, Yeong-hye’s husband (referred to later only as Mr Cheong) narrates his thoughts, feelings and actions regarding his wife’s sudden decision not to eat meat. There is a residual historical-cultural undertone in this, we suspect, and in the manner by which Cheong treats his wife in general.

In the second act, the focus switches to Yeong-hye’s video-artist brother-in-law who, when he hears of Yeong-hye’s ‘Mongolian mark’ above her buttocks, becomes both sexually and artistically excited. The sentiments blur as he seeks to paint her naked body in flowers and then film her, though his sexual intent flows through the process, the combination of which all interlinks with Yeong-hye’s assertion of eschewing all contact with meat, embracing the biota. Her brother-in-law abuses her naïve trust, though it isn’t the first of her abuses. In the first act, Mr Cheong relates the incident in which, at a family gathering, Yeong-hye’s father (a strict, former Vietnam War soldier) hits her for refusing to eat meat. She subsequently cuts herself with a knife so severely that it warrants a hurried visit to the hospital. Her father’s actions here are, also, not her first abuse.

In the third act, we discover that Yeong-hye’s father has been physically abusing her in childhood. Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, is the writing perspective of that third act. Han describes her visit to the psychiatric hospital, in the mountains outside Seoul, where Yeong-hye is obliged to reside. In-hye visits after Yeong-hye goes missing from the otherwise secure unit, later to be located alone in the hills. Yeong-hye is, by this stage, refusing to eat anything at all and her weight has dropped dramatically. She is largely catatonic, though consciously focusing on other things, we’re told. She has developed an association with the trees and wishes to be like them. This is not, however, a tale of turning into a tree.

Han’s writing is, at times, bold in its beauty of scarce description (the almost filmic descriptions of the hospital surrounds, for example) and she has a nuanced touch in the art of how things feel. She slips easily between characters, appearing to give them centre stage, yet only later does the reader comprehend the more subtle rendering of how Yeong-hye is actually, truly, at the centre of it all. She is the central character, that much is clear, and yet all the words about her are delivered a little more removed. There is a slight confusion in character names (Yeong-hye, In-hye, their brother Yeong-ho) insofar as remembering who is who for the reader unfamiliar with such similar-sounding names, but this is a minor quibble. That Han also chooses to name other passing characters as simply P., M. and J. is a curiosity which might, with positive regard, be treated as an idiosyncrasy, or with converse regard, as an irritation. Han’s choice of having some of her characters directly refer to one another, such as in telephone conversations, as Sister-in-law, or Sister, rather than by their names is, in the assumption, a cultural reference, though without full certainty.

Deborah Smith’s translation does sometimes offer up an oddness of word use (e.g. ‘pell-mell’, ‘falteringly’ or ‘confusedly’) and the final result is a mix of predominantly British English but with a scattering of American English spellings (‘favour’, ‘colour’, ‘theatre’, and then ‘realize’). This aside, as is the perennial perplexity of the regular reader of variety, the monolingual can never really know the truth of the form of a written work in its original language. As such, these critiques of the translator’s work are minor and presented more in the manner of observation.

In the final reckoning, Han Kang’s novel reflects a languid undertow of background subtleties because, ultimately, what isn’t so forcefully said is comprehended as being a part of the whole. That she chooses to slowly unfold the background of Yeong-hye’s life is testament to Han’s writing skill. She infuses her characters with introspections that fold around themselves but which don’t stultify too greatly the external actions of the characters or the descriptions of the scenes. Those characters are, initially, difficult to comprehend — not because of a complexity of writing but because Han paints them carefully but slightly. Mr Cheong’s first person attempt to extract some form of sympathy for the predicament of his unreasonable wife falls on deaf reader’s ears, but he isn’t someone we find we need to later concern ourselves with; Yeong-hye takes time to try to understand, insofar as her motivations and actions, or rather, her inactions, are concerned.

The Vegetarian earned Han Kang the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Whilst her writing style is accomplished and the content of her pages here is both carefully arranged and streaked with other depths and subtleties, there is a lingering dissatisfaction in the manner of its denouement. In an ambulance, In-hye whispers to Yeong-hye that: ‘Perhaps this is all a dream.’ Reviews here are written before any others are read, and this applies to praise by award-givers; however, the discrepancy persists in what the ordinary reader might require and what the literary establishment decrees as the most remarkable of its shortlist. The Vegetarian is entirely readable and thought-provoking but it isn’t the ‘bracing, visceral, system-shocking’ breathlessness as announced by its blurb. We should take care in discarding such hyperbole, and we should not be swayed by prize short listing cover addenda.

Simply, The Vegetarian is an interlinked three-act collection around the theme of mental deterioration, streaked with culturally specific, perhaps global, reference to gender relations, and the affects and effects of abuses: the author handles her work mostly with care and sometimes with the reality of flesh and blood.