In “The Vegetarian,” a mesmerizing, briskly paced novel from South Korean writer Han Kang, a young housewife embarks on an unsettling journey that isolates her from society and from her stunned family members, who get dragged into her strange behavior’s undertow. At first, Yeong-hye is a seemingly passive, taciturn young woman. She becomes possessed by terrifying dreams, and their mandates — inexplicable to others and yet fulfilling to her — demand more and more of her as the novel progresses.
In the first section, her husband reveals that he is completely satisfied in his marriage to Yeong-hye, “the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world,” because he knew she would never “disrupt my carefully ordered existence.”
The story moves quickly from there as his life, and his first-person narration, is disrupted by Yeong-hye’s imagistic thoughts presented in a stream-of-consciousness fashion: “Suddenly, everything around me began to slide away, as though pulled back on an ebbing tide. … I was alone, the only thing remaining in all of infinite space. Dawn of the next day. The pool of blood in the barn … I first saw the face reflected here.”
Yeong-hye’s sudden cessation of meat-eating is merely the initial and most visible symptom of a rebellion that comes from an unreachable place. Her obedience at any cost renders her increasingly illegible to the ordinary people around her.
While Yeong-hye’s motivations are explored fleetingly as they morph and deepen, Han’s prose is restrained, never obvious. That which drives Yeong-hye to an implacable self-destruction seems to come from both without and within, as the increasingly porous and ethereal Yeong-hye is presented as a kind of shaman in touch with the haunted, speechless life of the human body.
Han’s striking language has a purity, especially when it touches into the deep melancholia that is part of South Korea’s modern inheritance, in its explorations of the psyche in flux, seen here in the brother-in-law’s section: “I used to be dark. I was in a dark place. The monochrome world, entirely devoid of the colors he was now experiencing, had had a calmness that was beautiful in its way, but it wasn’t somewhere he could go back to.”
Through the second and third sections, “Mongolian Mark” and “Flaming Trees,” Yeong-hye’s descent is explored increasingly through imagery that speaks to the wilderness of each individual life: “The trees by the side of the road are blazing, green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage.”
Han Kang has written a remarkable novel with universal themes about isolation, obsession, duty and desire.
Sun Yung Shin is a poet and writer in Minneapolis. She is the editor of “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” which will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in April, and “Unbearable Splendor,” forthcoming from Coffee House Press in October.