“It was a body from which all superfluity had gradually been whittled away. Never before had he set eyes on such a body, a body which said so much and yet was no more than itself.”
The Vegetarian is visceral. Han Kang’s focus on the body — on the most minute details of musculature and meat — is wholly engrossing.
Yeong-hye, the central character, is inspected, scrutinized, pulled apart by those around her. They deem her quiet acts of rebellion stubborn, or erotic, or hysterical. Yeong-hye’s husband is embarrassed when she doesn’t wear a bra, when she refuses to eat meat. Her brother-in-law sees Yeong-hye’s body as intoxicatingly sexual. Her sister is panicked over Yeong-hye’s mental and physical health. Regardless of who is narrating, they all entrench Yeong-hye’s identity in her corporeal self.
“His head throbbed with the image of her buttocks crowded with coloured petals, overlaying that of a man and woman having sex, with which he’d covered page after page of his sketchbook.”
The Vegetarian is exquisitely surreal. I didn’t take it as a tale of mental health, or family drama. Rather, I saw it as a thought experiment, exploring the boundaries of mental health, body, vegetation, and sex.
The story is never told from Yeong-hye’s perspective. Instead, it is narrated by her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. We perceive Yeong-hye through their filters, their biases. We can try to read between the lines — but even that reading is replete with our own experiences and prejudices. I could try to read The Vegetarian with a feminist lens, with a lens for mental health and body dysmorphia. It’s a book that fits a kaleidoscope of perspectives, each one lending another layer of nuance and complexity.
For a highly erotic, evocative novel with surrealist undertones, I would recommend The Vegetarian. The translation by Deborah Smith is tremendously well done, and the book is poetic from start to finish. Savour The Vegetarian over a slow Sunday morning.