Book Review Series

The Vegetarian: The comfort of the uncomfortable

by Assma Al-Adawi

Illustration by Farah Kayyali

The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a strange and haunting story. The reader is uncomfortable at every page, and yet finds herself unable to turn away. Originally published in Korea in 2007, then translated into English in 2015, the novel came into prominence after winning the Man Booker Prize in 2015. It intrigues readers with its eerie narration and erratic events. It tells the story of Yeong-Hye, a Korean housewife who decides to stop eating meat after having a vivid, bloody dream, and the implications this decision has on her life and the lives of people around her. It is a baffling tale of repression, defiance, and a battle with flesh.

Strangely enough, Yeong-Hye is not the protagonist of this novel, but rather the subject. Her vegetarianism sends her down a path that threatens her social relationships, intimate or otherwise, and as such, the author chooses to tell her story from the perspectives of three people in three parts. The first part is narrated by her indifferent husband, the second is by her eccentric artist brother-in-law, and the final is by her self-sacrificing sister. The reader is given glimpses of Yeong-Hye’s consciousness throughout. Kang masterfully ushers the readers as they experience the strangeness of watching a vegetarianism turn into something foreign and incomprehensible. As readers, we are perturbed, confused and even irritated, mainly because the narrative is unreliable. We never get the perspective of Yeong-Hye, only how people react to her actions

The beginning of the novel sets the scene with Yeong-Hye’s pre-vegetarian existence told through the eyes of her husband, who describes her as “completely unremarkable in every way” (p. 13). He cares less about her well-being than the disruption that her choice makes in their life together. Evident to the reader, Yeong-Hye’s main function, as communicated by her social milieu, is to comply with his demands, so she serves him dutifully without any emotional engagement.he exists solely because someone brought her into this world, and another requires her service.

Her abrupt decision to stop eating meat seems to be her first individualistic act because her husband is shocked and annoyed. She defies conformity and social convention.. Everyone in Yeong-Hye’s life, from her family to random strangers at a corporate dinner, is appalled at her new lifestyle. Perhaps what Kang tries to show is that what we eat is not a personal choice, but a social construct of sorts, shaped by collective experience. What we eat has the power to bind us to the people around us. Think of how many heated debates simmer at the dining table, bringing to mind the cliched image of the awkward family dinner, where animosities are revealed in front of an unwitting guest. Yeong-Hye no longer feels the need to conform to this construct, and so her vegetarianism doesn’t sit well with anyone, regardless of whether or not it affects them.

As always, when food is introduced as a theme, eroticism invariably follows. Kang weaves a disturbing, sexual tension into the entire story, replacing one type of flesh with another. As if Yeong-Hye’s social defiance is not enough, she adds insult to injury by choosing to also forgo wearing a bra, which she claims constricts her; as if she yearns for a detachment from her own body. As she delves deeper into her new lifestyle, becoming apathetic and losing touch with reality, she becomes an object of fascination, turning into a vessel for other people’s desires, allowing her body to be consumed in an antithesis to the meat she rejects. The sexual consent is always dubious and questionable. Again, because it is not Yeong-Hye narrating, we don’t actually know her position on this. Every person reading the story is compelled to project their own interpretation to the strange unfolding of events because the narrative is detached from the main subject.

And yet, Yeong-Hye appears to take solace in the emptiness that her choice gives her. In a story where all the characters repress feelings, desires, and even words, she is the only person who appears to be aware that there is very little to lose. She doesn’t feel the need to suppress her need to do anything, whether it’s forgoing meat or appearing nude in public. She loses weight but doesn’t worry about her health. There is no longer a decision she cannot make, much in contrast to almost every other character in the novel, who are standing at some perpetual crossroad.

Take Yeong-Hye’s husband, for instance, whose lack of attraction to his wife borders on disdain. Why would he have chosen her if he found her so unappealing? As a male in a patriarchal society, he has the freedom to choose his ideal mate, but opts not to. The same goes for the other people in the story. Her brother-in-law is unable to make the art that he desires, her sister is burdened by life she chose for herself. Everyone is self-sacrificing in a way, for no understandable reason. Yeong-Hye is the only one who appears to have any agency whatsoever, and so people react to her with an entire range of emotions, from fascination, to irritation, and even jealousy. Although she sacrifices her body, she does so with more conviction than the others.

Again, this is just an interpretation we project onto the story, because as readers, we want answers. We want to feel like we understand why the story unfolds the way it does, but we don’t. Part of what makes it frustrating is the lack of explanation for many of the decisions that the characters make. There is a continual sense that there is a missing piece in the story. This could very well be the intention of the novel, and perhaps our need to have everything tidied up neatly is a flaw. Ultimately, all we can do is finish the story, close the book, and hope that we are satisfied with how everything turned out. Or maybe not.

Assma Al-Adawi is an avid reader and a lifelong learner. She is also a creative who has tried everything from fashion illustration, to writing and even JavaScript programming. She is currently working and living in Abu Dhabi. Instagram: @ofbooksandart

Farah Kayyali is a multimedia designer based in Dubai. Instagram: Farahkay.11

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Sabaya Book Club’s editorial stance.

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