Just finished reading The Vegetarian and I’m not sure what the ending is supposed to mean. It is not abrupt. It’s actually very smooth, in the sense that you ALMOST see it coming, but it’s a cliffhanger with no closure whatsoever which is torture because you’ve spent the past 180 pages trying to figure out what the end is going to be like. At least in my mind I had come up with all kinds of remotely plausible theories. Alas, they’re all just going to rot in my brain (Unless I decide to write fan fiction) (Good idea, actually)
For those of you who don’t know, The Vegetarian is a novel by Korean author Han Kang. It won the International Man Booker Prize 2016. It is the unfinished story of Yeong-hye told in three parts: Part I told by her pathetic husband, Part II by her artist husband-in-law and Part III by her sister. The protagonist’s mind remains unrevealed. Whatever we know of her is either corrupted by the prejudices of her family members or immersed in ambiguity through her internal monologues and little sentences that occasionally escape her mouth.
Translated to English by Deborah Smith, the language of the book felt very dispersed in the first part but that, I figured, was probably because it has been translated. Although you get used to it and then it’s not as much of a problem anymore.
The plot line is a simple one to follow: Yeong-hye, a quiet, nonchalant homemaker, suddenly decides to become a vegetarian after having a horrific dream that disturbs her beyond comprehension. She gives up meat entirely and it is this decision of hers that paves the path for her life to fall apart. Her marriage slowly disintegrates because she is no longer the “dutiful” wife she had been all these years. Her taciturn and submissive nature makes things worse as she is unable to explain the precise reason behind her actions, causing her relationship with her family, specifically her father, to crumble away. Her elder sister, In-hye, is pretty much the only family member who sticks by her through thick and thin; especially when we least expect her to.
The novel gives us an insight into a Korean family. The focus is limited to three characters but it is within these characters that we get to experience the dynamics of the human mind. Despite coming off as a personal journey, the book successfully manages to bring our attention to societal evils and the inevitable taboos that stand tall like barriers in our lives.
Young-hye and In-hye, born and brought up by the same parents in the same environment with an age gap of only four years, are contrasting in ways that siblings tend to be. They seem to have grown apart but as the book progresses, we are thrown into a whirlwind of thoughts and their relationship, not just with each other but with the world at large, is put into perspective.
In some bits of the novel, Kang does a beautiful job of describing the transformation and the psychological pain that Yeong-hye is undergoing; the way her desires pull her in one direction and she flows with the forces of nature, no questions asked. The fine line between sanity and insanity is challenged several times throughout the story as our empathy towards the characters begins fog our understanding of this multi-layered piece of literature.
The book also makes one think about the characters A LOT. It pulls us in so deep into the psyche of one character at a time, making one crave the same kind of explanation for other’s actions as well! You can’t help but question: Why are the sisters taking everything that comes their way? What is she thinking? Why won’t she speak up? Why won’t she just let go? Is she actually okay or is it all just a facade? Even when you know what the character is thinking, sometimes you just DON’T.
Young-hye, for one, is a mystery consumed in violence and erotica of the body, mind, and soul that refuses to come undone till the very end.