The Vegetarian: A Novel
Painting Flowers on your Sister-In-Law
Whitegrove Library book group had a long and broad discussion about The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
Sadly the book was not loved and although we were impressed by the translation we felt that this isn’t a book that would encourage people to read more books by this author. We have limited knowledge of life in South Korea and are grateful for the insights into the culture that this book provided.
We felt all the characters were unlikable (even the one who read books) and we were unable to generate sympathy for the characters. The group, incorrectly, thought the book was written by a man and were surprised at how unlikable the male characters were. They were the ones guilty of torturing animals, physical abuse, rape and bullying. Our discussion moved to the role of women in the South Korean society and comparisons were made to our own culture 100 years ago. It was interesting that, even in his own head, a husband called his wife his son’s mother. We talked about the hierarchy of a household and comparisons to the kitchen sink dramas of the 1960’s such as Shirley Valentine. We recognised that there are Korean traditions and cultural responsibilities that we don’t understand.
We decided that this book isn’t about vegetarianism and the title was misleading. We thought Entrenchment, Trapped, Becoming Trees or Painting Flowers On your Sister-In-Law might be better titles. Some copies had flowers on the cover and others had a broken wing which tied into the flight imagery that was frequently used throughout the book. Mental health was the overriding theme and people’s ability to support and understand the condition. Overall we were impressed with the private healthcare the patient received but were not impressed with the attitudes of her family. The sisters bonded more as both their mental health declined and they were abandoned by their families requiring the older stronger sister to continue working and functioning as a mother. We commented that her response to discovering her husband’s adultery, which was also the center of his art project, was to have him committed as if it was an act of mental illness. Was this a cultural reaction and would everyone have acted the same? We were glad he was released but in shame went away and when we finally hear of him he is in a telephone box in a forest somewhere.
Overall this book was described as cold. Individuals said they were not immersed and didn’t think about the book when they weren’t reading it. The presentation as three separate stories puzzled some who felt that Jeffrey Archer would have interwoven the stories and timing to produce a greater effect. Others felt some images would stay with them, principally doing headstands whilst trying to become a tree. We noted that we only looked into the life of the lead character and that she didn’t tell her own story. We wondered if this would be a tale for the sequel. The ending produced different responses with some seeing a glimmer of hope and some seeing death and loneliness. We wondered if we were too used to having Hollywood happy endings to our stories! One reader described her final feelings as “I shut the book and thought how impressed I was with the healthcare in South Korea. Nothing about the people at all!” We were all pleased that a DVD of the artist’s two art projects wasn’t included with the book!
Some Individual comments
I think I was inspired to read it quickly after the great discussion we had during our meeting. I found I agreed mostly with the things people said about the book especially the comparison to Fifty Shades of Grey - (Not that I have read it of course !!!! )
I did feel it shows so many cultural differences which we do not know enough about. I, like most people, found at the end I thought I had missed something important so felt empty and not fulfilled in a way one normally does on finishing a book. (June)
I'm afraid, we didn't enjoy reading the Vegetarian, however, although we did both finish it. We can see its technical merits as a piece of creative writing. It is very well structured and the translation is also very well done. Presumably it has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize, in part, because it has such an unusual theme and provides insight into a very different culture and set of values, particularly in terms of family dynamics. It certainly explores in great detail the way humans can be led into very extreme compulsive behaviours. We recognise that some readers might be enthralled by the story because it is so strange, but it is not a book that we would recommend to our friends. (Pam and Jean)
I am not a fan of The Vegetarian! I am finding it too dark and brutal. I appreciate it is compact and tightly written. The translation may have added to this. I also appreciate cultural differences. (I was in S. Korea for work some years ago). However, it is not to my taste and not bed time reading! (Helen)
I felt like a detached observer reading this book, albeit one that is somewhat surprised/bemused by the seemingly extreme reactions of a young woman’s determined shift to a vegetarian diet and then I realised that the young woman, Yeong-hye, has very real psychological problems which would in all probability lead her down the road to anorexia. Also, not knowing enough about Seoul culture, I sensed how this sudden transition to vegetarianism and abstinence was shocking to her immediate circles (I likened this in our Group to suffragettes rocking society to the core with their demands for a vote).
The first part of the book is written from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s mediocre husband who is worried that his wife’s extreme actions will lose him his job, who appeals to her family for help which backfires to the extent of a suicide bid by Yeong-hye. As her fantasies take more of a hold over her, her husband leaves her. Put simply, I felt nothing for this man. I certainly felt no sympathy for him. If anything I felt a degree of pity/shame.
The second part reverts to the third person as we focus now on Yeong-hye’s brother in law’s reaction to Yeong-hye and his obsession with her body which he persuades her to let him paint. I see, I thought at the time, so this is getting all sensual now (a touch of the 50 Shades of Grey, I think) with the brother in law wielding influence over Yeong-hye. Although this is a sensual chapter it is underlined by Yeong-hye’s continuing departure from reality and her isolation and sadness.
The final part focuses on Yeong-hye’s sister struggle to come to terms with what is happening to Yeong-hye. She is clearly bonded to her sister despite finding her and her husband in the sexual act. In this chapter there is even a hint of her sister struggling with the same mental illness as Yeong-hye but to a lesser extent.The Korean care home goes to great lengths to try to save Yeong-hye’s weakening and emaciated body but there is little understanding of her sister’s mental state as she now refuses to eat as she embraces the notion that she is a tree. It is difficult o find hope in this chapter and I was left with a sense of death and hopelessness at the end of the book.
There may be an opportunity for a sequel as we have not heard from Yeong-hye’s perspective. The book follows a time continuum rather than weaving in and out of family member reactions and this may in part be because it was published as three separate novellas. (Sandra)
The Vegetarian (Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith) Review
[Spoilers contained within]
Yeong-hye is the central character but the work is divided up into three parts and each from a different character’s viewpoint: Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr Cheong, her brother-in-law and In-hye, her sister respectively. This works well as it keeps Yeong-hye as an enigma and the cause of her starvation remains an enigma – at least to the others.
I chose to be a vegetarian (and later a vegan) as a small child. I was given a choice by a supportive family. Therefore I could relate to Yeong-hye’s decision, though her path to personal freedom was so different to my journey and that is the tragedy of the novel.
Vegetarianism was a component of her freedom; partly atoning for the horrific fate of her dog; an absolution of her past and maybe of her culture. What was her freedom? Is an ultimate freedom not to eat at all and become a prisoner of oneself? In this way, the book touches upon existential themes. Do medics have a right to force feed an individual, who will otherwise die? Does an institution have the right to incarcerate a woman who wishes to be a tree? Are we confined by boundaries or do these give us the perspective to live? The conventions and boundaries are also challenged by the brother-in-law, whose struggle with ‘art for art’s sake’ ultimately ends his role in the novel. It is interesting and important that in the mental hospital, In-hye comes to connect closer with the patients than people, outside.
I’ve speculated how much Yeong-hye’s family’s refusal for her to eat what she wants was because of her abusive, father and how much may be cultural. I don’t know enough about the latter but abusive, male relations seemed to revolve around Yeong-hye. The protagonist was violated on many levels. She is raped by her husband, physically and mentally abused by her father and treated as a sex object by her apparently ‘sensitive’ brother-in-law.
Was Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism a reaction against the oppression of not just her father but her family and beyond? However, her mother condoned her husband’s sadistic actions by her own apathy towards her daughter. After Yeong-hye is instutionalised for the second time, we see neither father nor mother. Was this a cold family or a family living with the conventions of the culture and the time?
Imagery is very important to the book: trees are constantly described. Yeong-hye has an empathetic, spiritual connection with the life of a tree so that she plays or becomes one; they are important in her dreams. It is probably no coincidence that a turning point for In-hye is also strongly connected to trees. Then there is the Mongolian mark – was this a metaphor for arrested development or perhaps Yeong-hye’s individuality? The references to blood allow us to reflect upon the life-cycle and our mortality. I think that central to the tragedy is that Yeong-hye sees death within her body but in nature sees life and growth. Birds and flight are a major part of the novel. The brother-in-law constantly uses them in his work and shortly before his departure, attempts to take flight. In an echo of ‘Of Mice and Men’, why is the little bird killed in the hospital grounds? Near its conclusion, In-hye observes the black bird soaring in the sky. I’d like to se in this a renewal and optimism for the future.
The novel is no easy journey for the reader. For example three of the main characters attempt or contemplate suicide; bullying, alcoholism violence, torture and death are all features of the central family. Mental health and anorexia are key components of the book. Yet, it is not without its uplifting features: in Mr Cheong’s story, In-hye seems an echo of the brutal father and callous mother. Yet later, she is revealed as a person, not without her faults but someone who has deep love for her sister and can eventually overcome a huge betrayal.
It is interesting to wonder what nuances and words were, if at all, lost and were others gained in the translation. Deborah Smith succeeds in conveying the vividness of the story. Translations allow us to look through the window of another society but Deborah Smith’s seamless translation allows us into Korea. The English translation flows and gives us permission to be absorbed in the novel and not in the huge technicality and skill that the translator undertook.
A book of painful themes that made it a painful read. This doesn’t make it any less worthy; Han Kang raises many questions about existence, freedom of choice and society. Was the ending literally that for one of the characters - or was there a grain of hope to be found? These are unanswered questions but allow the reader to find their own truth about the future of Yeong-hye, however unlikely. It is often what not is written that makes a book come alive and because of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye and In-hye live on.