Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more 'plant-like' existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister's husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming - impossibly, ecstatically - a tree.
Description taken from Goodreads
In the second part, titled Mongolian Mark, Yeong-hye’s brother in law seeks the means to satisfy an obsession with Yeong-hye that comprises equal part artistic vision and sexual desire. While I thought there was a certain elegance and beauty to his artistic concept, there’s also an unmistakable selfishness nestled in its roots. One aspect of this section that truly delighted me is how he comes to understand that Yeong-hye’s preference for nudity has absolutely no sexual connotations and, by association, that nudity in itself is not inherently sexual.
In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, narrates Yeong-hye’s hospitalisation at a psychiatric institute as the final part, titled Flaming Trees. This is by far the most reasonable and understanding section of The Vegetarian as In-hye puzzles through the intricacies of Yeong-hye’s now advanced mental illness and the meaning of her own, milder symptoms.
I feel no shame in admitting that this book beat me. The Vegetarian is a raw and complex examination of sexuality and insanity that teeters between disturbing and morally indefinable. Perhaps a lot of the ambiguity surrounding the main character, Yeong-hye, and her motivations could have been clarified if she had more of a voice in The Vegetarian, but instead the reader is mostly observing her. Since all the men in this book are awful to varying degrees, there is a large amount of bias to overcome in the first two parts.
There is a clear thread of feminism woven throughout The Vegetarian. This is made obvious through the male assumptions that rape is acceptable in both successful and failed attempts, the expected dominion of male opinion and desire, and the implication that a self-assured and opinionated woman is a strange creature in need of conquering.
While I can’t escape the lingering suspicion that insanity doubles as a metaphor, I still find the more obvious idea that prolonged periods of suffering abusive behaviour can drive cracks into one’s sanity compelling. Although Yeong-hye’s schism from reality is more extreme than most, there are subtle hints as to the influences Yeong-hye’s husband and brother in law had on its progression.
The Vegetarian is a book that transcends most everything I’ve read before, but while the prose and pacing make it highly readable; I found the content distressing at times. Yes, I enjoyed it, but it also haunts me. Anorexia is not a trigger for me personally so I can’t honestly evaluate how its mention might affect those to whom it is. The rape is not as vividly described as the scene of attempted rape, but I found the sheer nonchalance about it chilling and alarming.