The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Korea, 2007

When I began this short and beautifully written novel, where strange blood-thirsty dreams are intertwined with mundane, domestic interactions, I thought that it may have been about the central character’s, Yeong-hye, attempts to free herself from the male-dominated society in which she lives. Her decision to stop eating meat was, for me, a sign of a new independence and an awareness of the soul-destroying relationships – husband, family – all of which are threatening to destroy her.

However, as I read on, I realized that Han Kang’s book delves much deeper than male dominance and female acquiescence. It may be about the restrictions imposed by a male-dominated society, but I feel that it is also about the many other restrictions that limit both men and women. Most people are unaware of the limitations, because they are not interested in pushing boundaries: they spend mundane, unfulfilled lives somewhere in a safe middle zone. Han Kang herself has said that the book is an allegory for present-day Korea, and, as such, it is probably a description of Korea’s attempt to find herself and realize her potential.

Yeong-hye knows that there is something else, but to reach this something else she also knows that she has to extricate herself from everything that is holding her back – first meat and eventually any kind of food: she needs to become as one with the natural environment around her. Her brother-in-law, the artist, is subconsciously aware of the beauty that exists beyond that point of letting-go, but he is unable to let go, fettered, as it were, by his animal desires. At the end of the book, Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, begins to understand that Yeong-hye is not mad, and she finally understands what it is that her sister has been trying to communicate.

Like a painting, this is a beautiful but disturbing book with many different levels and, no doubt, many individual interpretations.

Photo of Han Kang above from Barnes & Noble