When I finally turned the final page of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, I was torn: there was a part of me that found the book unsettling, and another that found it mesmerizing. A few hours later, having ruminated slightly upon the effect it had on me, I came to describe it with another, more apt word: visceral.
Ms. Kang’s novel is ostensibly about a woman who decides to become a vegan and the repercussions of that decision on the circle of people around her; it is also a story about the body, about what touches it, what enters it, and what destroys it.
The prose, even in translation, is jarringly visceral. The descriptions are terse, but palpable, as if every touch, every cut, every bite is happening to the reader and not to a fictional character. I left several pages with goosebumps, with nausea, and even with pain—Ms. Kang’s writing is evocative enough to create this kind of physical reaction.
More visceral, however, is the narrative. The driving force of the novel is watching the characters eat, touch, fight, cut themselves, have sex; every action in The Vegetarian has some kind of physical effect on the character, and every physical effect has a corresponding mental and emotional impact. Lives unravel because of what people choose to eat, what people choose to do, who people choose to fuck—in many cases, any choice or agency is gone, and the physicality is forced upon the character—and this unraveling culminates in an ambiguous understanding that who we are is ultimately defined by who and what we touch.
I did not like The Vegetarian, but my appreciation for the novel extends much beyond the dichotomy of like and unlike. I felt the novel, palpably, and this viscerality is what I will remember about the book, long after I have returned it to the library.