Once I finished ‘The Vegetarian’ and placed it down I tried to gather my thoughts, knowing that I would eventually write this review. However, I feel as though it shall be two reviews in one. On the one hand, I found it thoroughly enjoyable, in parts. I am sure you can guess what’s remains in the other hand. Having been told before reading that this book was said to taper off during the second third, I was happy to find that this section was my favourite, it was the last that threw me. Truly this is because this book feels like three stories in one, rather than three parts to a single story.
“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”
Yeong-hye is introduced to us by her lackluster husband, a man who appears to notice her only once she becomes vegetarian. This is prompted by nightmares that detail her in gruesome and warped realities where raw flesh is in her mouth, blood soaking her body. Her immediate reaction to this repulsion is to remove all meat from the house and even go as far as to stop eating animal produces all together, living on mostly vegetables. Although this the crux of the story, there are hints that Yeong-hye was already at one with nature, refusing to wear a bra in a wish to remain naked, even at a public restaurant and remaining, for the most part, mute. Silence and nudity, reflective of the vegetative state she is becoming. With the dietary change comes rapid weight loss and is viewed as purposeful rejecting social norms, especially in South Korea where meat is eaten with almost every meal.
To keep this review spoiler free, I shall try to vaguely reveal my likes and dislikes about ‘The Vegetarian’ in a way that does not dissuade you from reading, but rather starts a conversation about the merit of the novel. This did win ‘The Man Booker International Prize 2016’, therefore finding mixed reviews may be difficult. I shall try to articulate my experience as best I can. I very much was excited to read a novel from a Korea author, and the location of South Korea itself is subtly shown through the story in a way which is truly engrossing. Having read a few Asian novels I can say that I very much enjoy the detail given to preparation before eating and there is usually an airy calm essence to domestic scenes.
I very much was excited to read a novel from a Korea author, and the location of South Korea itself is subtly shown through the story in a way which is truly engrossing. Having read a few Asian novels I can say that I very much enjoy the detail given to preparation before eating and there is usually an airy calm essence to domestic scenes. Although it is only her nightmares from which we hear Yeong-hye’s voice she is a character that leaves a strong imprint on the reader. Her unpredictable nature and sympathetic situation, living in such a hostile world., engaged me. The most enjoyable aspect of the novel personally is her musings on trees and her desire to photosynthesise. It reminds me of a wish to return being a simple organism, almost reverse evolution where life is more linear and passes you by without a thought. It is both a gloomy and peaceful vision. However, this message becomes somewhat warped in the second half, and the disturbing actions of Yeong-hye begin to change her from an odd-ball into a vapid menace. The semblance of meaning I was first finding was suddenly washed away. Yet, as a stand alone I would have much preferred if the second third was a story in itself. The interactions between Yeonge-hye and her brother-in-law are some of the most awkward and bizarre encounters I have ever read. I enjoyed the simplicity of it, especially when most of the chapter takes place in only two locations, it feels deeply isolated from the rest of the story and by the end of this third, I had almost completely forgotten about the first. If you find yourself struggling to engage with the first third I suggest skipping to the second and reading as a stand alone. Overall by the beginning of the last third I had enjoyed what I had previously read. Then came the ultimate episode.
It was such a shame that I became to disinterested by the end. I shall not reveal what happens and the ending itself does not tie up any loose ends, I found myself skimming a lot. It felt like this would have been the perfect opportunity for us to have experienced a first person narrative from Yeong-hye. Having all her actions be told by those who don’t understand her becomes tedious. Understandably this is what Kang was going for, a sense of mystery and intrigue, however, by the finale, I found myself deeply confused and unfulfilled. The premise was so promising but the execution for me feel flat at the end, where it should have climaxed. I feel as though this novel would have benefited from a continuous first-person narrative from out protagonist. She can still remain a puzzle even if she tells us her story, her consciousness crumbling was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel and yet was explored so rarely in between the mundane consciousness of the secondary characters. The speakers were not fleshed out enough to allow me to enjoy their long internal monologs. The fragmented nature of the nightmares and Yeong-hye increasing erratic behaviour created an environment ideal for exercising surrealism, which I believe would have kept me invested all throughout.
All in all, despite it being an interesting premise and evoking some philosophical ideas about what it means to be human and engage with the natural world, I was overall disappointed. My advice would be, read it, give it a go and see what you make of the novel away from the criticism I have presented. There are some gems and I found myself engrossed from time to time, however, don’t feel you must like it because of the award attached to its name. I was able to buy the signed copy of the novel and can say, for the enjoyment, I did find in it, I am still happy that I picked it up. I hope you are too.
If you have read this book, let me know what you think below!
Side photo credit: Flickr/ ‘orange’ by Emma Nagle