The Vegetarian is a curious little novel. A meditation on the fragile link we have with our hold on sanity and outward allusions of normalcy in a world and society which expects us to not bother it with deviations from the perceived norm, it is also a powerfully affecting look at mental illness and the fraying of relationships it engenders.
The story is basically about Yeong-hye, a woman who her husband describes in the beginning as ‘completely unremarkable’, and her decision to suddenly stop eating meat or any animal based products. The effect her decision has on her family is multi-fold. Her husband, a completely unremarkable man himself who wallows in his mediocrity and has no desire to complicate his life or rise above it, is absolutely baffled by his wife’s sudden eccentricity and considering his total disregard in trying to understand her in general, is not willing to delve into her mental state apart from trying to figure out how this situation will affect his life. Pretty soon, the situation delves into a farce of epic proportions with her unrelentingly dominating father trying to force meat into her at a family get together. The consequences of this resonate in all of the characters’ lives from then on. As Yeong-hye’s aversion to meat worsens, her condition appears to be a metaphor to the harshness of human violence in general. She sees in her blood soaked dreams a truth which she cannot escape from and feels the well-worn mask of obedient normalcy slipping away. This manifests in her desire to be one with the earth and become a plant.
Though the story is about Yeong-hye, we only observe her mostly from the narrative view point of others around her. The first section is from the point of view of her husband, Mr. Cheong as he grapples with his absolute lack of understanding and empathy of his wife. The second part focuses on her brother-in-law, a hardly successful artist, who develops a fetish and intense longing for her and desires to both make her body a subject of his art as well as his own desires. Yeong-hye, by now emotionally distant from normal social mores is invigorated by his artistic impulse on her body and they grapple with a shared lust.
The last and probably most touching section is narrated by her sister. Trying to show as much humanity as she can towards her little sister, she realizes the futility of her heretofore docile and complying existence. As she struggles to understand Yeong-hye’s affliction, she herself comes to her epiphany on her life and has a sudden impulse and desire to break free of all the bonds holding her back. The roles of daughter, wife, mother which she has played over the years without fuss now seem to be the chains keeping her down. Will she act on them?
There is a lot of sympathy and empathy for the female characters here, and understandably so considering the trials each have faced. The male characters here are mostly not very endearing – Mr. Cheong is a mostly uncaring example of a typical patriarchal figure seen here in our shores too, who doesn’t even bother to consider the well-being of his wife as long as his life is kept on an even keel with her as one of the smoothly functioning cogs. The brother in law, on the other hand, is a mostly insecure artist who while more mentally aware, still doesn’t think too much on acting on his fantasies. His casual dismissal at times of his wife’s perceived calm, industry and niceness is a telling indictment of plenty of men in cultures similar who end up with women who deserve so much better. The father is mostly a veritable dominating brute. It’s Yeong-hye’s sister who I found myself caring for the most here.
An interesting story for sure, but I’m not sure it has been explored as much as it could have been or in the best way possible. Of course, the translation could have also played a factor here, despite it winning the Man International Booker Prize in 2016.