If Gloriana unsettled me with its profuse exuberance, Han Kang’s Booker prizewinning 2015 novel takes the opposite tack. This is a book in which everything has been stifled and pressed down into aching silence. Its protagonist, a young woman named Yeong-hye, is trapped in an unhappy marriage with a self-centred, indifferent and arrogant husband who kicks off the book by informing us that she is ‘passive’, has ‘neither freshness nor charm’ and that he’s always thought her ‘unremarkable in every way’. For years, Yeong-hye has ministered to her husband’s needs quietly and efficiently; but things are about to change. One night, an alarming dream prompts Yeong-hye to make an announcement. She is becoming a vegetarian. It’s a step which leads to chaos within her family and scandal outside it, as Yeong-hye’s lifestyle choice becomes caught up in the much broader question of women’s self-determination. Ironic, compassionate and brutal by turns, this is an uncompromising book: one that isn’t always easy to read, but which shines a fierce light on the injustices of a heavily patriarchal society.
Told in three sections, the story follows the impact of this one simple decision. Yeong-hye has been a dutiful daughter and a subservient wife. Her sudden decision to stop eating meat, or having it in the house, baffles her husband who can’t understand why she is suddenly making his life so difficult. Nor can he understand why she won’t simply do what he tells her. This attitude is shared by his in-laws, who are embarrassed and ashamed by Yeong-hye’s obstinacy. By going against her husband and, in due course, her father, she challenges all the notions of good behaviour in her conservative Korean society. Retreating further and further into silence, growing increasingly averse to meat in any form, she slips out of their reach – leading to shocking interventions which aim to force her back onto the ‘right’ path. In the first section of the story, we follow this initial decision and its tragic aftermath, as Yeong-hye’s family try to force her to abandon her eccentric ways. In the second, her brother-in-law finds himself faced with a difficult problem when an artistic project becomes inextricably intertwined with thoughts of Yeong-hye. And, in the third section, Yeong-hye’s sister reflects on the way her sister’s decision has smashed through the polite restraints of convention, and opened the path for other unconventional behaviour.
This isn’t necessarily a pleasant book, but it is a powerful one. By turning vegetarian, Yeong-hye is resisting her unsatisfying life in the only way available to her. She is taking control in the only way she can. Her subsumed resentment of her father, her husband, her entire life as an undervalued and easily-dismissed woman, bubbles up into dreams of violence and blood. Her obsession gradually disconnects her from the world, giving her a safe space within her mind: the only part of herself under her own command. Her family, tragically misguided, attempt to enact their own desires on her body – that she should eat meat – that she should satisfy sexual needs – but here, within her mind, she can be free of whatever indignities they inflict. In one sense, you could say that each of the three sections deals with a different case of obsessive dreams: Yeong-hye’s dream of the dark forest and blood; her brother-in-law’s dreams of sexualised coloured flowers; and her sister’s dreams of Yeong-hye. In each case, the dreams find their way into reality, disrupting the neat orderliness of their lives and forcing them onto dramatic and unusual paths. It’s a story about the fragility of society and how easily we can break through that thin ice into the deep, troubling waters below the surface. Once broken, it can be terribly hard to close that ice up again.
It’s certainly a very bleak book. Kang unflinchingly portrays the violence that a father can use against his errant daughter, and the way that her women’s inner lives are almost entirely neglected by the men around them. And it is a story of an eating disorder – the way that a deeply depressed and lonely woman with no self-worth finds a measure of control in denying herself food. It takes place almost entirely within the context of family interactions, usually within the home, which adds to its sense of claustrophobia. It’s surely significant that we never actually hear from Yeong-hye herself, except in the italicised sections within her husband’s narrative. In life she is surrounded by those who define her as sister, wife, daughter – the occupant of particular social roles that she soon refuses to follow. In fiction, she is defined only by others’ words, others’ attempts to understand her, and others’ projections of their own desires upon her. Like many other Asian novels I’ve read, it is told very simply and ‘quietly’, but simmers with unease and – in this particular case – with an eloquent, barely-restrained fury.
While I didn’t feel quite as absorbed in this as I would have hoped, it’s something I’m glad to have read – and something that turned out to be quite different from what I was expecting. It’s good to read more Korean fiction, too: Pachinko is the only other novel I’ve read about Korea so far. But I’m not sure that this is the kind of book I’m going to read and reread: it’s thought-provoking, hard-hitting and ‘worthy’, but not a favourite.