While deciding to adopt a vegetarian diet is fairly inconsequential for most of us, save for the odd dietary restrictions reminder come Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, it is the beginning of a series of dreadful events for Yeong-hye, who renounces meat as a result of terrifying nightmares that haunt her. Told from the perspective of three different narrators, none of which are Yeong-hye, the story is as disturbing as it is enthralling. Exquisitely narrated, rife with powerful, vivid imagery and eroticism, The Vegetarian takes the reader on an unsettling journey that spirals into Young-hye’s devolution.
If, like me, you enjoy books that leave you with more questions than answers, you will love this novel. Although it’s a short read, with less than 200 pages, through its captivating, almost hypnotic phantasmagoria, it touches on numerous complex societal and psychological issues. Contrary to its title, the novel is not about vegetarianism; instead, through the twisted metamorphosis of Yeong-hye, it explores issues of conformity, disobedience, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, feminism, self-harm, mental issues, and so much more.
Although I strongly despised the majority of the characters, I found their flaws and insecurities both fascinating and perturbing at the same time. The emotional distance and apathy exhibited by Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband, was palpable from the very first sentence of the book, yet I was utterly unprepared for the appalling and cruel violence that he and her family inflicted on her.
It comes as no surprise that this literary masterpiece, translated from Korean to English by Deborah Smith, won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Needless to say, I’ve already ordered Han Kang’s Human Acts and look forward to reading it.