The Vegetarian by Han Kang
My Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
[Originally appeared here (with edits)]
Many of us, if stretch a little, can recall the question that appeared in our science textbooks in primary schools: choose the living and non-living thing from the following options. While we conveniently tagged all humans, animals and plants to the ‘living’ side, everything else chugged to the ‘non living’ side. But did the divide stand the test of time?
Han Kang pushes this very divide to scintillating heights, reducing the line into a mere fissure, facilitating travel from one living form to another. So, we meet a young Yeong-hye in South Korea, a compliant wife in a patriarchal society, suddenly renouncing meat at the behest of a curious dream.
A matter of grave concern, throwing not just her health into jeopardy but also her marital and filial relationships asunder, that must be assuaged before it’s too late. But a series of disturbing, echoing nightmares keep her stoic in her resolve, leaving only her sister and brother-in-law in the big, unforgiving world to extend their support, albeit not without curious pokes and starkly different motives.
What follows underline the haunting journey of a woman transformed, repealing everything conventional to assign meaning to her inner voice. Experiencing erotic exploitation and befriending helpless eyes, discarding worldly echoes and embracing floristic world, Yeong-hye moves from a home to a studio to a hospital with incredible equanimity and singular passion – to become a plant.
Intermingling three points of view in three different, well-etched parts with the eye of a shrewd player, Kang raises questions on human dichotomies and their constant collision against the inherent shackles of society. The strength of Kang’s voice is in her refusal to smoothen the rough edges of her characters – they bare their scars and innermost vulnerabilities and yet don’t appear drawing sympathy. In one of her interviews, Kang ascertains that the novel is an attempt to fight human violence and the possibility to refuse bearing it. A lingering trail formed by each part, almost akin to life that continues to throb long after it has stepped off the page, certainly adds gravitas to her objective.
This wasn’t an easy read for me, frequently veering on the bizarre and mystical, puncturing a perfect reading demeanor. But the lithe, supple body of the words came to rescue, lapping up my anxiety like an unexpected drizzle that keeps one’s soul hydrated on a trying road. The sentences, themselves, run like trimmed creepers, embracing the reader in a cocoon of adrenaline rush and propelling slowly towards the destination like an intoxication catching speed.
“Such uncanny serenity actually frightened him, making him think that perhaps this was a surface impression left behind after any amount of unspeakable viciousness had been digested, or else settled down inside her as a kind of sediment.”
The destination, of course, is occasionally a misnomer, for all it does is set us onto a new journey. This book fits to that assertion like a glove.
[Image courtesy hiveminer.com]