Okay, I had to try the click baiting title, because it is appropriate for this book.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a book told in three parts. In the first, Yeong-hye suddenly stops eating meat after having a disturbing dream. Her husband is concerned about this, not about Yeong-hye, but how her behaviour reflects upon him. Her family is also embarrassed by her refusal to eat meat, especially as she becomes more and more withdrawn from reality. She stops sleeping, even speaking less and less over time. Things come to a head during a family gathering.
The second part is told from Yeong-hye's brother-in-law's point of view. He becomes sexually obsessed with her after learning about a birthmark she has. He tries to incorporate her into his "art."
Finally, Yeong-hye's sister is left to deal with the aftermath of the previous events. She struggles with feelings of guilt. As Yeong-hye's mental state deteriorates, she tries to make the right decisions involving her sister's health. What is right in this case? Is there any help for her?
This isn't simply the story of a woman who becomes a vegetarian. She didn't do it after reading GOOP. She didn't have pangs of conscience for farm animals. The vegetarianism is just the tip of the iceberg. This is an unconscious protest. In a way, The Vegetarian reminded me of an updated female Bartleby the Scrivener. In Melville's tale, Bartleby stops behaving the way society expects and withdraws from the world. He stops working and replies, "I would prefer not to" when asked to do anything. This becomes frustrating to those around him. Yeong-hye also doesn't do what society expects. She's expected to obey: her husband, her father, all of her society. When she refuses because she "had a dream" (her "I would prefer not to"), it throws her family into confusion.
The men in The Vegetarian are the worst examples of male privilege. Yeong-hye is an object. Her father treated her cruelly growing up, her husband treats her at best like a maid; his behaviour becomes increasingly disgusting. Her brother-in-law uses her for his own ends without taking into consideration her fragile metal state or the fact that she's his sister-in-law. Even the male doctor in the third section is angry that Yeong-hye won't meet his expectations.
It's interesting that the story of Yeong-hye is told through the eyes of people around her. We see very little of her personality. It's as if she has none. When she does speak in brief interludes, it's through images and dreams.
The Vegetarian isn't for everyone. There is some violent content and imagery- some of it sexual. There were several parts where I wondered if I would make it through to the end. I am glad to have read it. I've been thinking about it since I finished it. It sure was disturbing though.
About the Audio: Most of the audio is narrated by Stephen Park. Small sections (Yeong-hye's voice) are narrated by Janet Song. It's a short production at just over 5 hours.
Translation by Deborah Smith.
My thanks to Penguin Random House Audio for the review copy. All opinions are my own.