Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know.
Mr Cheong chooses his wife Yeong-ho because she’s passive. This means he doesn’t need to prove his intellectuality; he doesn’t need to worry about his physique; he doesn’t need to worry about being late to meet her, and he can get over ‘the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis’.
The only unusual thing about Yeong-ho, according to her husband, is that she doesn’t like wearing a bra, so goes without when she does leave the house. At Mr Cheong’s work outing, his embarrassment over her being braless is superseded by her vegetarianism though and he vows to do something about it.
Yeong-ho has turned vegetarian, despite it being highly unorthodox in South Korean culture, because of a set of reoccurring dreams she has. Although Yeong-ho never tells the story of her dreams to her husband, they are related to the reader – the only time, besides reported speech, that Yeong-ho is given a voice.
Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick struck with great blood-red gashes of meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin.
In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.
Her husband wakes to her throwing all the meat out of their apartment, after which she doesn’t make another meal involving meat. The consequences of this are her losing weight until she resembled ‘a hospital patient’; her stopping sleeping, and refusing to have sex with her husband because he smells of meat.
Following the meal with Mr Cheong’s work colleagues at which Yeong-ho doesn’t eat a single thing from the twelve courses, her husband telephones her family and they go to visit. From this point in, the book becomes even darker, descending, on occasion, into physical violence and disturbed mentalities.
The novel’s in three parts. In the second, Yeong-ho’s brother-in-law becomes fascinated with the Mongolian mark that she still has. His story is of how his obsession and his video art work play out, inspired by a Yayoi Kusama video work he’d seen years earlier.
The third section is from the point-of-view of Yeong-ho’s sister who tries to make sense of her family and their outcomes.
Deborah Smith does an excellent job of translating Kang’s words; the only things that jarred were the images and thoughts Kang created, Smith’s words convey these smoothly and often startlingly, something I have no doubt Kang intended in her original work.
I can’t write a review of this book without mentioning that superb cover either. It’s designed by Tom Darracott, who also did the original cover for Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child. Looks beautiful doesn’t it? Until you look a bit closer. Spotted it yet? The fly? The hand? The snail? The eye? The piece of meat? The tongue? It’s perfect for this novel; the disharmony beneath the beautiful surface.
The Vegetarian is unusual, disconcerting, unnerving. It considers society’s treatment of a young woman when she goes against its expectations of her and it’s not pretty, either in terms of others’ behaviour towards her or her internalisation of behaviour that would be unacceptable to others. It’s Kang’s first to be published in the U.K. and I hope there will be many more to come.
Thanks to Portobello Books for the review copy.