Yeong Hye is a housewife in South Korea, who, terrorized by nightmares, decides to become a vegetarian. Her husband Mr. Cheong, a businessman in an unnamed South Korean company doesn’t understand the sudden change of attitude. She was a good cook and a woman who enjoyed eating meat, so what has come over her? Cheong just wants Yeong Hye not to cause a scene at a company dinner, but of course she does, when the meat dishes are brought out and served. The other guests at the company dinner are bewildered by Yeong Hye’s attitude, and don’t understand her vegetarianism. Her husband almost gets used to the fact that she has dumped all the meat from the refrigerator and doesn’t cook meat for him.
Yeong Hye and Mr. Cheong go to a family barbeque where Mr. Cheong lusts after her sister-in-law, In-Hye. Events take a dramatic turn for the worst when Yeong Hye and In-Hye’s father tries to force feed Yeong Hye meat at the barbeque. She spits out the meat and proceeds to slit her wrists. After being hospitalized, Yeong Hye goes home to live with her sister In-Hye and her husband, an artist. Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law becomes obsessed with painting Yeong Hye with flowers all over her body and then filming her having sex with him. Does the artist act on his fantasies? What would this do to his marriage to In-Hye?
The Vegetarian started off very interestingly, but then loses itself in symbolism and moroseness. This is a dark book, everything seems overly dramatized. Why the people around her react so angrily to a simple change of diet is beyond me, if she wants to abstain from meat-eating, let her, so what? The book is rife with symbolism, is Yeong Hye’s bleeding a symbol of purification or is it a symptom of violence? Are the trees majestic symbols of what everyone should strive for, living at peace with nature? Is the forest a symbol of refuge from modern society? Or is this just a book about rebellion? Is Yeong Hye rebelling against a society that prizes conformity above all? Or is Yeong Hye rebelling against her husband who wants nothing more from a wife than a well-cooked meal and some clean shirts? Is she rebelling against her domineering father who may have beaten her as a child? Or is Yeong Hye a symbol herself in allegory about yearning for simplicity in a modern culture? I do not know, the language was too vague. Maybe something was lost in the translation, Kang wrote this in Korean, and it was translated into English, maybe some deeper meaning is lost in the translation to English.
The book is written from three perspectives, the first from Yeong-Hye’s husband, the second from Yeong Hye’s brother in-law, and the third from In-Hye, her sister, and each section gets exponentially darker and more depressing. I was trying to find a character to root for in this story, but there isn’t one. In-Hye is the closest to a sympathetic character as there is in this book, but sympathetic does not always equate to likability.
Also if this is a book about serious issues, and I gather it is, why intersperse the symbolism of the blood and the dreams , with thoughts of an affair? The author Kang seems at times obsessed with the fact that Yeong Hye doesn’t wear a bra. Why does she keep repeating that fact? The book is very inconsistent. It tries to titillate, than it tries to be serious, and it’s not enough of either to make the book interesting. And then Kang just ends the book, it just ends, and that is the most frustrating aspect of all. It felt like a long difficult, difficult journey to nowhere in particular.
The Vegetarian: A book with no meat on its bones.