The Freedom of Madness – The Vegetarian by Han Kang

There is a lot that trauma can make us do against our will and a lot it can make us do willingly. We all have our means to escape and our means to deal that oftentimes separate us from society in many ways. Sometimes, it’s the only way we can live freely…

When I picked up this book, I went in completely blind. I didn’t know what the hell it was about other than a woman suddenly going militaristically vegetarian and how it affects those around her. Well, that is not exactly what I got.

I will preface this review by saying I have schizoaffective disorder. Most of you who know my content know this little niggling factoid about me already and how sensitive I am to depictions of madness and psychosis. The Vegetarian took madness itself and depicted it as an escape while turning reality itself into true madness. Confused? Let’s talk bout it.

*Some spoilers ahead*

The Vegetarian tells the story of Yong-hye, a simple and unremarkable housewife who has a nightmare that completely turns her vegetarian. She starts the book with nothing special about her other than her suddenly deciding to throw out all of the meat and animal byproducts in her fridge much to her husband’s fury. I believe if it had been left there… then nothing horrible would’ve happened Yong-hye. If her vegetarianism was accepted or even offered treatment to find the underlying cause… but that’s not what we got. This goes from a strange decision by a woman who is obviously suffering to an abusive story about the place and autonomy of women. For you see, this book is never once told from Yong-hye’s point of view. It is told from the POV of three different people and only one of them cares about her.

It is told first from her disgusting husband’s pov. He who doesn’t think much of her to begin with, and only married her because he wanted a simple wife that he didn’t want to have to contend with — see easy to control. Rather than understanding that something is wrong with his wife, that she is obviously going through a mental break, he instead complains and admonishes her to the point that he gets her family involved in an effort to control her. This ends disastrously when she self-harms in front of them all and this literal waste of space divorces her while she is interned because “he is the victim” by having a wife like her.

I think this was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. This leads into the second POV, that of her brother-in-law.

Spoiler: he’s just as disgusting and selfish as her husband.

He lusts for Yong-hye which comes to a peak when his wife, Yong-hye’s sister mentions her sister having a Mongolian Mark. This is a blueish bruise-like birthmark that often shows up on the rear end. When he visits Yong-hye he wants to use her in his art which starts out as a sort of Avante-guard, but quickly devolves into pornography in which he tries to get a friend to sleep with her on camera to complete the piece. When the man refuses, he chooses to paint himself and sleep with her because he wants to sleep with her. I want you to keep in mind that Yong-hye never once expresses consent and she is still in a mental crisis at this point. It ends with her sister finding them and calling for professionals to take Yong-hye for help and even threatens to intern him as well. This ends his marriage as he never returns to her.

Thus we come to the final POV, that of her sister and for once we are given sympathy, empathy, and understanding of Yong-hye. We are told of both sisters’ abuse and their means of coping and we watch as Yong-hye deteriorates further and further with no hope of recovering. Yet it seems that she is happy in her madness because there’s no longer anyone trying to use and hurt her.

The Vegetarian is such a viscerally abusive book towards both Yong-hye and the reader that I felt a bit sick. I hated the brother-in-law the most because where the husband was disinterested in her, it felt worse that his interest lay in his ideals of her body and madness as some form of artistic tool for him to use. Kang paints a horrifying image of womanhood that is solely in the hands of men and the rumination of female autonomy where you only have two roads to freedom. Repression and resilience like Yong-hye’s sister and the utter release of sanity like Yong-hye herself.

This book was painful and yet somehow it was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had the privilege of picking up. I want to read more from this author once I get through more of my backlist. The imagery she creates and the themes she explores are right up my alley. This exploration reads more as a horror story rather than fiction.

I loved this novel very much and I highly recommend it, but if you pick it up I will warn you there is both an instant of marital rape and dubious consent as I spoke about earlier. Neither are intensely graphic, but they are abusive in their own way so please be careful.

Thank you for your time and I hope you enjoyed this review! I’m gonna read something lighter!

-Stay Well-Read-

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