I hadn’t come across this book by chance like it happened usually with the books I read. I had browsed for Korean Novels and ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang was the first search result. The blurb said something like “…story about a woman’s decision to give up eating meat and how her family responds to it.” It piqued my interest. I remember thinking how an entire Novel could be born out of a simple decision on dietary choice. I got hold of an eBook copy and started reading.
The narration starts from the point of view of the title character’s husband as he describes a regular day in his life… his work, his home and the person with whom he shares the home… his wife. One feels the lack of love between the couple from the get go. There is a portion where he explains the reasons why he decided to marry her. The choice is singularly driven by utility as if he was buying a washing machine or a refrigerator. It is the banality of her appearance and character that leads him to the decision. A harmless presence that makes some aspects of his life easier but one that does not complicate his life in any way. That’s how he sees his wife. The sole thing he seems to appreciate about her is her cooking of various meat that Koreans are fond of. Even that is short lived as the woman starts having strange dreams and stops eating and cooking meat altogether. It might not sound as a huge inconvenience to an Indian reader with a significant population in our country being vegetarian. But Korean cuisine consists predominantly of meat and the woman is soon viewed as a curiosity by everyone. She loses weight drastically raising concern among family members. Things take a turn for the worse when the woman’s family get together to try and convince her of the supposed irrationality of her decision. Soon the story gains a dark hue in the reader’s mind with the realisation that there is more to the woman’s renunciation than that has been revealed till then.
At this point, the narrations shifts its point of view to that of the woman’s sister’s husband. The reader enters the mind of a visual artist obsessed with images. The peculiarities of another loveless marriage takes the story forward, that of the vegetarian’s sister and husband. The man’s obsession with a new image leads to a shocking series of events which give further insight on the precarious state of the protagonist’s mind.
The narration in this point of view ends in utter chaos and then it jumps into the mind of the third family member, the vegetarian’s sister. A feeling like an uneasy calm after a storm grips the reader in the subsequent pages as the sister, the most relatable character in the story, fills the gaps the jump in narration had left. A sense of impending tragedy intensifies as new revelations give the reader a kinder perspective on the mental state of the different characters.
The way the story then ends feels incomplete, yet it leaves one full. ‘The Vegetarian’ is not really about a woman’s decision to give up meat. It is about a woman whose mind gradually convinces her that she has to die in order to become what she truly is. It is about a man whose mind is obsessed with his art as a way of escaping his otherwise unexceptional life. It is also about a woman who wants to live rather than merely survive. It is about the eccentricities of the mind and makes you think, does yours really belong to your body? At places it makes you question reality… what is real? That which your body experiences or that which your mind tells you.
If for nothing else, the book is worth reading for the experience of the narration-jumps from one character’s view point to another as their lives get upended by the title character’s metamorphosis.
Reviewed by Pranav V