- Karin Shimoo
The Vegetarian – Book Review
“Her skinny collarbones; her breasts […] her visible ribcage; her parted thighs, their position incongruously un-sexual …”
Like a car sharply turning a corner, a defining moment for my femininity came after reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. The book was a casual suggestion by a long-time friend, and I was so oblivious to the effect the book would have on me and my self-image when I opened the softcover for the first time at a station bench. I remained planted there, on that silly and cold bench, as it immersed me in its world, chewed me up, and spat me out: raw and hurt, but also awake for the first time.
Set in Korea, The Vegetarian follows the tale of a woman who wakes up one day and becomes vegetarian, led on by a strange dream. Unable to embrace this change, her husband miserably tries and fails to “fix her”. What started as an attempt to redirect her dietary preferences transpires into a twisted ordeal – involving her parents, her sister, her brother-in-law, a couple of hospital visits, dangerous pursuits of sexual fantasies, betrayal, forgiveness, abandonment, and womanhood. As a novel, it is certainly “entertaining”, as I was never left bored (unless you count the woman’s husband’s lack of imagination and simplicity but that is another story).
Yet The Vegetarian cannot and should not be read for entertainment, but for those who do, their sense of self will be violated, intruded, and prodded around with a hot fork and pulled apart like zucchini spaghetti. This was certainly how I felt. Because to me, the book's core was a literary representation of what I had been feeling for a long time.
As an Asian young “woman” (though I feel too young to claim to be) raised in the Western world, concepts of what femininity looks like are complex. I do not have the curves I see in others and often feel like a small toothpick. My height rewards me with the label “cute” in the Western world, while I see women my age being called “beautiful women”. In a self-inducing way, I struggle to imagine myself as a grown woman. Meanwhile, in Asian spheres, my attitude and mindset have been looked down upon for being too risqué, too dangerous, or perhaps too easy. But the moment I became more reserved, just as I had been told, people told me I became boring, like a grandma, sitting at home and counting her days. It seems like I can never be grown enough, never feminine enough, too young, too old …
Being wedged between the Western and Eastern interpretations of femininity, The Vegetarian was an experience that allowed me to face these submerged contradictions for the first time. The book’s exploration of the male gaze, social pressure, love, sex, comfort, violence, acceptance, and its influence on women’s relationships with one another all struck a chord inside me in one way or another.
For a few days after closing the book, I was in a daze, wanting to recommend the book to all my friends but unsure of whether it was right for me to impel them to open boxes they may not be ready or want to open. In the end, I chose not to (except for my best friend, I had to, sorry). So, I would recommend this book to anyone, no matter your gender, who is ready to stare in the mirror and really count their insecurities and acknowledge what part you play in the whole game of love, intimacy, and sex. And for that, you’ll love it and hate it.
Kang, H., 2016. The Vegetarian. Hogarth.
Edited by Emiru Okada
Graphic by Satomi Shikano