What is normal? What is mental illness? These are the questions that spring into mind while reading Han Kang’s Vegetarian. It is a nightmarish, yet beautiful novel. And it is very much Korean. I have a tendency to fall for Korean novels, there’s been several good ones in my reading list lately: The Girl with the Seven Names by Hyenseo Lee, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin and The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang. Vegetarian takes the lead by far.
Author: Han Kang
Publisher: Gummerus 2017, Finland (the Finnish edition)
Original language: Korean
Helmet Reading Challenge 2017, number 49: A new book of 2017.
Yeong-hye is a modest and quiet woman, living in a very traditional Korean marriage, which presents itself to a western reader as a kind of house-keeping & sex arrangement. Her husband Cheong is the epitome of a self-centred, cold abuser, but Yeong-hye couldn’t possibly expect anything more, because she has been used to being abused already in her childhood home by a violent father. To the outside she appears to have adapted to her life, but maybe not entirely.
One morning her husband wakes up to a whole new wife. Yeong-hye has discarded all meat products, ceased to serve him and become almost entirely mute. Only thing Cheong can get out of her is, that she’d had a dream. Yeong-hye has become a militant vegetarian, who refuses all meat, and almost all food anyway. As her body withers away, her spirit seems to travel beyond the real world too.
Her family doesn’t take the decision well, in fact they try to force her back to the old ways. But Yeong-hye is beyond their reach. She doesn’t want to live a human life – her mind is set to transform into a tree. When she tries to take her own life, her husband leaves her and her brother-in-law finds an opportunity to act out his own twisted fantasies. In the end the older sister In-hye is the only one in Yeong-hye’s life besides the medical personnel in an asylum. She has her own issues to work through about their shared childhood and her own life choices.
Han Kang’s languages is poetic even when describing horror. She doesn’t categorize, or name the issues under the surface and actions of her characters. She just describes their life, immerses the reader in the actions and feelings. And while she shows us the evolving mental illness of her main character, she also shows us the inhumane, even sick acts that the so-called normal people resort to.
The Girl with Seven Names:
Please Look After Mom:
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly: