The Vegetarian by Han Kang
3 out of 5 stars
This novel made me really uncomfortable. I’m not saying it’s bad or badly written. I quite liked the sparse language and the weird premise.
You won’t be surprised if I tell you that this is not a book about vegetarianism. It’s about a woman who decides to no longer eat meat because of a dream she had. She does so in a society where eating meat is not only the cultural norm but the only choice.
It’s also a novel about the way we perceive the people close to us and how we often claim to know their innermost motivations and beliefs – their true selves.
What I really liked about “The Vegetarian” is how the aforementioned decision and its consequences are described by three different narrators giving the reader three different versions of the protagonist and her motives. The way the representation of the eponymous vegetarian changes according to each narrator (her husband, her brother-in-law, her sister) makes it clear that the notion we have of the people we love is not always true.
Now what’s the uncomfortable part? I can hardly put a finger on it, and maybe it’s the translation or that I personally lack the cultural context. But a lot of the scenes made me cringe. Most of all Han Kang’s descriptions of the physical. The way she writes sex scenes reminded me a lot of Murakami (close focus on genitalia or nipple).
The more I think about this, the more I believe that this was done on purpose. Anything to do with the body (the flesh, so to speak) is supposed to be disgusting and not appealing – even through the eyes of the meat-eating narrators. So it’s probably a good thing that I reacted the way I did. I stick with my three star rating, though because I still thought that whole plot fell a bit flat. Even though this is a fairly short novel I think it would’ve worked better as a short story.
Oh but will you look at that gorgeous cover!