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I felt the absence of necessary human emotions from many of the characters.

The Vegetarian: A Novel - Han Kang

The Vegetarian, Han Kang, author; Deborah Smith, translator; Janet Song, narrator and Stephen Park, narrators.

This is a tale about a family from a culture in which wives are expected to be obedient and respectful to their husbands and their families. The men are expected to be served and the women are expected to be subservient. Yeong-hye is a South Korean woman. She had always been a proper wife and daughter, but when plagued by gory dreams, she decides not to eat meat any longer. Her husband and family are horrified by this decision as they see her begin to waste away. They do not understand the extent of her emotional disturbance and attribute her behavior to stubbornness. Her self-absorbed husband grows annoyed with her behavior and takes it as a personal affront. After her father attempts to force feed her meat, she cuts her wrist and is hospitalized. Her husband does not feel any responsibility for her, but rather feels offended by her behavior and he divorces her.

Her brother-in-law is a visual artist who conceives of the idea to paint her naked body with flowers after he finds out that she has an unusual Mongolian birthmark. He begins to imagine assaulting her sexually. He, too, begins to have disturbing dreams. Disregarding her emotional problems he approaches her and requests to paint her nude body and film her. She assents and he is overcome with desire for her. Soon he is filming her with a male whom he has also painted hoping their bodies will look like overlapping petals. When he discovers that his sister-in-law is aroused by the flowers, he has himself painted and visits her in her apartment. They are both overcome with desire. When Yeong-hye’s sister, his wife, discovers his infidelity, she calls emergency services and has them both committed to the hospital. He is released after they realize he is not mentally ill, but her sister, Yeong-hye, remained confined.

Although her marriage breaks up, she remains loyal to Yeong-hye long after everyone else has abandoned her, but Yeong-hye does not improve. Soon, she refuses to eat anything at all and only requests water and sunlight. She has discovered that trees need only water and sunlight. She desires to become one with the trees. When she cannot help Yeong-hye recover, no matter what she does, she begins to question her own emotional well-being. Dreams have recently begun to disturb her sleep too. She wonders if this is how it began with Yeong-hye.

This is a story of dysfunction exacerbated by a lack of communication. Couples and family members did not share their innermost concerns or thoughts or feelings. Marriages seemed to be based on convenience rather than love. Relationships seemed to exist on the edges and the surface, with the men satisfying their needs and the women disregarding theirs.