the vegetarian han kangThis remark­able, even mes­mer­iz­ing, novel was first pub­lished in South Korea nearly a decade ago, where it became an inter­na­tional best­seller. Only recently has the book gained wide acclaim in this coun­try, after being trans­lated by British trans­la­tor Deb­o­rah Smith.

While not hor­ror in the tra­di­tional sense, THE VEG­E­TAR­IAN con­tains plenty of sur­real images and graphic, often dis­turb­ing vio­lence and sex. Yeong-​hye is a melan­choly and sub­mis­sive house­wife whose bland life is upended when dread­ful dreams of butchered ani­mals drive her to throw out all the meat in the freezer and announce that she is hence­forth veg­e­tar­ian. This seem­ingly innocu­ous deci­sion sends her rigidly tra­di­tional fam­ily into a tailspin.

Clearly the social mores of Yeong-hye’s world con­strain females to a lesser sta­tus. Her author­i­tar­ian father, in a fit of rage, tries to force pork into her mouth. Tellingly, when Yeong-​hye snatches up a knife, it’s not to fend off his brutish attack, but to slash her own wrists.

The book is told in three sec­tions, the first nar­rated by Yeong-hye’s clue­less and indif­fer­ent hus­band, the sec­ond by her smit­ten brother-​in-​law, the third by her sis­ter, who strug­gles to save Yeong-​hye and keep the fam­ily together. Yeong-hye’s own voice is sel­dom heard, as she retreats more deeply into a delu­sional world of silence and self-​starvation.

Tube-​fed in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal, Yeong-​hye fan­cies she can turn her­self into a tree. As her fran­tic sis­ter offers her one favorite food after another, each of which is rejected, Yeong-​hye asks, “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

Why indeed? In one poignant pas­sage, doubt is cast as to who is the pris­oner and who isn’t, as Yeong-hye’s sis­ter admits she is unable to for­give Yeong-​hye 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.”

The reader is left with a haunt­ing image of Yeong-​hye, still cling­ing to life, being rushed to yet another hos­pi­tal. Her bizarre obses­sion with becom­ing a tree has destroyed her body. Whether or not it has also freed her from some­thing even worse appears to be still in question.

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