It is rare to read a novel so visceral you feel it physically. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian does this and more, transporting the reader into a world where the senses are confused and the psyche is tormented.
I read this book in one sitting, even though I hadn’t planned to do so. Provocative and captivating, this three-part South Korean work of fiction is not for the faint of heart and is surely something else entirely for English-speaking readers who may not do well with such powerful imagery.
Yeong-hye is an apparently ordinary woman whose sole quirk is that she never wears a bra. She’s plain, uninteresting, and married to a man who goes to work, comes back, expects to have his food on the table, and doesn’t care much about anything.
One night, Yeong-hye has a hallucinating dream and decides to become a strict vegetarian. She throws away all the expensive cuts of meat from the freezer, and her life slowly fades away as she leads a tree-like existence.
Of course, her decision to purge her mind and renounce meat has all kinds of repercussions. In a traditional society like the South Korean one, where women are expected to do as they’re told and live the lives their mothers and grandmothers lived before them, standing out from the crowd is not permissible. The odd and tragic consequences of her gesture make the novel read like a mute protest against a traditional society that suppresses the soul and denies any chance at transformation.
“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her successes had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn’t understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.”
Obsession, violence, and raw sexuality are omnipresent in the book, which reminded me of the sensations Elfriede Jelinek’s The Pianist showered over me.
Animal eyes gleaming wild, the presence of blood, unearthed skull, again those eyes. Rising up from the pit of my stomach. Shuddering awake, my hands, need to see my hands. Breathe. My fingernails still soft, my teeth still gentle. Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening – what I am going to gouge?
Besides being a novel about a women’s breaking away with tradition, The Vegetarian is also about the pain and complexity of having to live in a world where no one truly gets you. The lack of the family’s understanding of Yeong-hye’s mental troubles is astounding. They don’t even pity her, they don’t offer help but instead react violently with their sole purpose being reverting Yeong-hye to her original, submissive state.
The Vegetarian is a short novel that you won’t forget too quickly. I read reviews from people who couldn’t bear the way Han Kang infiltrates into the depths of the human mind, and others who couldn’t cope with the violent images. It is indeed a powerful work of fiction that is not meant to be comfortable. It is full of nuances that may elude some readers, but in the end, it is shocking in a way only books stroked by genius are.