★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
‘Why, is it such a bad thing to die?’
Well, that was strange.
I picked up The Vegetarian without really knowing anything about it. My friend recommended it: she said it was dark, so I was sold. I didn’t even read the blurb, which was easy to miss because it’s hidden inside the cover. The quotes on the back call it ‘surreal’ and ‘sensual’ and ‘taboo’. They were all the words I needed.
(I’m glad I did avoid the blurb, by the way. I’ve since discovered it, and it’s quite spoiler-y. So if you’re going to give this book a go: avoid the description, if you can!)
Reading The Vegetarian without knowing anything about it first is like looking at a painting without being aware of its context. I’ve never read any South Korean literature before, so don’t know much about their society. Apparently it’s a commentary on Korean culture, but I’m not sure that’s true. And even if it is, I don’t think it matters if you don’t pick up on that. I imagine it’s one of those books that has an intent, but if you miss it, you’ll enjoy finding your own meaning.
I certainly didn’t read it as a social commentary. For me, it was a really twisted fairytale for grown-ups.
It all starts with Yeong-hye – a very plain, very normal South Korean housewife, with a very mundane marriage – having a dream. A pretty graphic dream. The next morning, her husband walks into the kitchen to find her emptying the fridge of all the meat in the house. She won’t be eating it anymore.
I was nicely surprised that the book doesn’t take a moral view on diet at all.
The book is split into three parts. Each is from the perspective of someone close to Yeong-hye: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, who are all affected by Yeong-hye’s decision.
They each take a real interest in her new diet. They aren’t happy about it, for various reasons, and they’ll do literally anything to force her back into eating meat. As the voice of the novel changes, so does the pace – which is refreshing in a book where nothing much happens. It follows the ebb and flow of Yeong-hye’s transformation.
Mental illness, deviance, control of the self and control of others are at the heart of The Vegetarian. Yeong-hye bears the brunt of them all, and it’s significant that she’s the only character who doesn’t have a voice: everyone has an opinion about Yeong-hye and what she should be doing, but no one listens to her. The only time we hear from Yeong-hye is in the peculiar snatches of her dreams.
The Vegetarian is truly unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s like poetry. And it made me ask some difficult questions I still don’t know the answer to, especially about free-will and when (or if) we should intervene in others’ choices.
In the same breath, it’s bloody, grotesque, dreamy, erotic, violent and heart-breaking.