When I tweet the title of a book and "whoa," it can mean several different things, but in the case of Han Kang's The Vegetarian, it meant "this is f-blanking weird and kind of amazing." Bizarre because it's about a woman who suddenly rejects eating meat after a series of bad dreams and whose life fully falls into the realm of the creepy for the rest of the book. Amazing because it's compelling enough that I read it in one sitting mostly because it was creepy and bizarre. Catch-22, yo. Can't look away.
Note: I did receive this book from the publisher in consideration of an honest review. I don't think there's anything more honest than the title of this post. Also, I completely make up words like "polarizor."
Yeong-hye is our main character, and her story is told in three parts. The first is her asshole husband narrating her decision and her changing habits as she rejects meat, stops serving it to him, and disrupts his life. This section also includes some really disturbing separation from her family and the beginning of a continual process of being estranged from the people around her. The second section is told by her brother-in-law who is much kinder than her husband but also equally messed up and abusive. The final section is narrated by her sister who struggles with the urges to "fix" Yeong-hye or let her be...even if that's a near-impossible decision.
SO. MANY. THINGS going on in this novel. And it's short...only 197 pages (my e-galley was even shorter). Sadly, I am not as educated on South Korea as I probably should be, but I think anyone with an even passing interest in the news will see how this could be a critique of South Korean culture...especially of decisions that go against cultural norms. Yeong-hye is immediately an oddity and then a freak for rejecting meat in the eyes of everyone: husband, family, strangers.
As the story progresses, Yeong-hye becomes more "plant like." She likes to sun herself, shucks off clothing at every available opportunity, neeeeeds water. It's pretty clear there's something bigger going on than a dream and a decision to eat meat or not. She's changing, becoming less of the world, and those around her take advantage or they don't. It's fairly heartbreaking to see her losing her agency...but did she ever have much to speak of?
So why the title of this post? There's no doubt this will be a polarizing book because I already see the ratings split in my Goodreads friends list. It's gruesome at times. While the writing is beautiful and compelling, there's a lot of mentally filling in the gaps, a lot of ambiguity throughout. I loved it, and I was surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I did because in the first section I considered setting it aside. I'm glad I endured and gave it a chance because there's so much to discuss. It would definitely be a great book club pick if your book club likes a certain level of disagreement to stoke discussion.
Have you read anything outside your comfort zone yet this year? Anything that confronted you?
February 2016, Hogarth