What a strange little book. I tried to think of something in my reading experience with which to compare it and the only thing that came to mind was Kafka's The Metamorphosis, but instead of waking up to find herself transformed into a giant insect, Yeong-hye awoke one morning from a troubled dream of blood and gore and cruelty and decides to give up the eating of all flesh; to become a vegetarian. For her avidly meat-eating family, a metamorphosis into a giant cockroach might have been preferable. They are appalled and outraged.
At a family gathering some time after she makes her decision, they try to force her to eat meat. Her brutal father slaps her twice and forces a piece of meat between her lips, but Yeong-hye manages to spit it out and then grabs a knife and slits her wrist. As her blood spurts out, the only one who comes to her aid is her brother-in-law, while her parents, her husband, sister, brother, and sister-in-law look on. What is wrong with these people? Well, a lot, apparently.
We learn about it all from three different sources: the odious husband, the brother-in-law, and, finally, the sister.
The husband's tale starts with his description of his impressions on meeting the woman who was to become his wife. To say his was underwhelmed would be an understatement. To be fair, his description of himself is just as unflattering. I laughed out loud at the husband's sardonic depictions of the two of them, but it was the only time in the book that I felt any inclination toward jocularity.
As his wife of five years makes her decision to become a vegetarian, all the husband can think about is how this affects him and what his employer and their acquaintances will think. He is totally self-absorbed.
The brother-in-law becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye after the incident at the family gathering. He is an artist. His medium is videos and he becomes consumed by the idea of featuring his sister-in-law's naked body in his videos. He wants to paint flowers on her body and film her. She agrees to this. His fixation then moves on to filming her having sex. He persuades a fellow artist to allow him to paint flowers on his body and to be Yeong-hye's partner, but when it comes to the point of actually engaging in sex, the partner backs out. The brother-in-law then takes over - which is what he wanted to do all along - and videotapes himself having sex with her. The sister discovers them together.
The last section of the book is the sister's tale and there we learn some of Yeong-hye's back story. We learn, for example, that she was an abused child. She was the middle child with her older sister and younger brother, and her father took out his rage on her. Her sister feels guilty that she did not do more to protect her or support her.
Through the sister's eyes, we see Yeong-hye descending from a healthy vegetarianism into anorexia. She goes from refusing to eat meat to, finally, refusing to eat, period. She is diagnosed with a mental illness and hospitalized. Her husband divorces her. Her parents and brother abandon her. The only one who stands by her in the end is her sister.
Yeong-hye is slowly starving herself to death, even as her sister tries to pull her back and persuade her to eat. She dreams of transforming herself into a tree. Finally, she asks her sister who is trying to persuade her to live, "Why, is it such a bad thing to die?"
In Korean society, where societal mores are expected to be strictly obeyed, her decision to become a vegetarian and live a more plant-based life is seen as an act of subversion. This disturbing novel should evidently be read as an allegory about modern life in Korea, and about obsession and the choices we make, as well as our stumbling attempts to try to understand each other. This is an impressive bit of story-telling by a very talented writer.
Just a note also about the translator: I read this book in English and it was a thoroughly lithe and graceful translation. The translator was Deborah Smith and she, too, is an artist.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars