by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
read in October 2017
this review contains minor spoilers!
The Vegetarian is a short book about a woman named Yeong-hye, who suddenly decides to become a vegetarian after having a nightmare. This novel is divided in three parts, each narrated by a different person close to Yeong-hye.
The first part – named The Vegetarian – is told from the perspective of her husband. I instantly disliked him. Their marriage is convenient, rather than romantic. He says a lot of insensitive things (such as ableist remarks about mental illnesses) and rapes his wife repeatedly.
Yeong-hye‘s brother-in-law is the second narrator. This part was named The Mongolian Mark. I didn’t like him either. Both of these men yearn for their sister-in-laws and he rapes his wife as well.
His obsession with Yeong-hye knew no boundaries. He leaves his five-year-old son all by himself at home because he wants to go and watch the video tape he made of Yeong-hye. If his wife hadn’t called him first, he wouldn’t even have told her he left the child alone at home.
There are multiple sex scenes in this book, which is only 188 pages long. In each scene, there is a lack of consent, no protection is used and it revolves around penetration. I mean, it can’t be healthy to put a penis covered in paint inside your body…
Characters don’t need to be likeable, but when they are problematic, I want it to be called out on the page. And that didn’t happen, except perhaps by In-hye, Yeong-hye‘s sister, but only briefly. Each narrator had their flaws, but these two men in particular disgusted me. Though this book is supposed to revolve around mental illnesses, a lot of ableist remarks were made.
Flaming Trees, the third part, is narrated by In-hye, Yeong-hye‘s sister. She was definitely my favourite storyteller of the three. For some reason, I thought The Vegetarian was a thriller, and I was hoping this book was going to end with Yeong-hye‘s brother-in-law’ and her husband’s deaths. In this final part, however, it dawned on me that this is not a thriller, but a book about mental illnesses. Yeong-hye is diagnosed with anorexia and schizophrenia.
In the end, we still don’t really know what happened. This entire novel is about Yeong-hye, but she’s not a narrator. Though the final part did redeem the rest of the book for me, it wasn’t enough. There were too many flashbacks instead of actually finding out what is going on. Admittedly, I am awful when it comes to metaphors, so I might have missed something.
Mental illnesses need to be represented in media more often, but as someone with mental illnesses, this book didn’t do me any good. It made me feel incredibly anxious and afraid of my mental health. This isn’t an uplifting read.
Because the author didn’t write an author’s note, I don’t know why she decided to write a book dealing with mental health. Because of that, I don’t want to condemn this novel, but I don’t appreciate how it’s about someone who is mental ill, but it’s told by bystanders instead of herself. That caused a lot of ableist remarks that aren’t helpful to readers with mental illnesses.
Furthermore, I found the representation a bit stereotypical. Yeong-hye would have sex with anyone as long as they’re covered in flowers, she acted so incredibly strange and the psychiatric hospital really resembles what we see so often in films.
Apparently, this novel deals with female autonomy as well, but there were so many rape scenes that weren’t called out on page. Maybe the author expects the reader to do that themselves, or maybe she doesn’t think it’s rape. I’d rather know for sure and that’s why I really wanted more commentary in the book itself.
CW/TW for physical and emotional abuse, self-harm, suicide attempt; animals are abused, killed and eaten; child abuse, anorexia, schizophrenia
Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy The Vegetarian. I wish I had known beforehand this deals with mental health, as this turned out quite triggering for me. Though I can deal with the fact that the narrators are unlikeable, I wish their problematic behaviour was called out on page. Having said that, I usually read Young Adult fiction, so maybe that isn’t done as much in Adult literary fiction.
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