I’m usually good about saving money, but I do have a weakness: books. I try to buy used or sale books whenever possible, but every now and then I find myself unable to resist an attractive cover and intriguing premise.
I passed by The Vegetarian for months and finally succumbed.
I have little experience with Korean literature, and all I knew of this novel was its reputation. 2016’s Man Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian has been translated into several languages and has gained worldwide attention. I wanted to read what was fresh and talked about, rather than always combing through books of yesteryear.
I paid full bookstore price for The Vegetarian and it was worth every penny.
This novel is a triptych of sorts, each portion of the story told by a different narrator, and all centered around the same woman, Yeong-Hye. Yeong-Hye is tormented by strange, bizarre nightmares and sees vegetarianism as the only solution. Her obstinate nature tears apart the tenuous relationships in her family, and sends everyone spiraling to points of no return. I realize this depiction sounds a great deal like the blurb on the back of a book, but telling you more would spoil the drastic twists and turns this story takes.
What I can tell you is that this novel is so visceral and matter of fact, it borders on depravity. These are not easy characters to understand, let alone like. The sexuality of this novel is perverse, yet unashamed. Han counters the awkwardness and stoic nature of her culture, with absolute fearlessness.
The sunlight coming into the room was bright. Her disheveled hair wrapped around her head like an animal’s mane, while the crumpled sheet was coiled around her lower body. The smell of her body filled the room, a sour, tangy smell with notes of sweetness, bitterness, and a rank animal musk.
There are other points where this novel haunted me as I slept. I loved every moment.
What sells me most on The Vegetarian is theme. This is not a horror novel, or even fantasy, despite all its supernatural elements. This is a work of feminism, and more broadly speaking, a work of human failings. The most heartbreaking moments are its most human: loveless marriages, dreams deferred, family conflict. It’s clear that Han attracts a disparate audience, lovers of the real and surreal can come together and appreciate all this novel has to offer.
I know I certainly did.