‘She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.’
― Han Kang, The Vegetarian
One of the joys of my life is the diversity: here I sit in Russia, reading a South Korean book, with a shawl I purchased in Jordan, eating local raspberries and Palestinian dates, and sipping Guatemalan coffee from a cup I bought in Ethiopia. Every country and culture I experience enriches my being. Gratitude.
With so many themes – anorexia, exploitation and patriarchy – in such a short book, I found myself confused and uneasy. To my eye, the sexual nature of the book is unnecessarily vulgar. It didn’t enrich the narrative but detracted from deeper messages about freedom and abandonment, and further highlighted the objectification of the female form without questioning it.
Yeong-hye’s voice is rarely heard: we understand her existence through the warped interpretations of others. Something most women know only too well. Her voice is almost irrelevant. No, she is irrelevant. Her fragility seems imperceptible, and compassion is almost non-existent, even from those who supposedly close to her (save her sister). To others, she is difficult and dull, and her struggle with mental health is perceived as a choice. She veered off the path of feminine conformity and, as a result, is shunned. Women the world over have similar (maybe not as extreme) experiences when we follow a path that doesn’t fit with society’s expectations and find ourselves ostracised from peer groups, families and colleagues. I too have lived this experience.
The final chapter details the violence of anorexia ravaging Yeong-hye’s mind and body with glee. Agonising to read, yet I was comforted by the unconditional sisterly love she received in the darkest moments. I was struck by the theme of abandonment as it received a mere sentence or two, almost an expected outcome. Is that how we enter intimate relationships? Knowing we must choose conformity or accept potential abandonment? There is freedom for men to depart when challenges arise, yet ‘the vegetarian’ has no freedom to choose what to consume or how to live. None.
A strange yet somehow relatable read that will stay with me for years to come.