I just finished 2 books recently, and I debated on which review to post first. The safe choice is The Stars are Fire, but many of you are probably already familiar with Anita Shreve. So I’m going straight to the risky one – The Vegetarian by Han Kang. And wow. It’s not for everyone. Let me explain.
This novel was first published in 2007 and deemed by its Korean audience as “very extreme and bizarre.” It wasn’t until 2015 that The Vegetarian was translated into English and then won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Hmm… what does this say about American readers? That we embrace gore and violence more eagerly than our Asian counterparts? Or that we rise to the challenge of analyzing the symbolism and chaos in this little yet powerful allegorical novel? I like to think the latter.
Kang’s novel tells the story of Yeong-hye, a passive homemaker who stops eating meat after series of dreams involving images of animal slaughter. The first part is narrated by Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s traditional husband, who can’t understand his wife’s drastic choices. The second part of the book is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a video artist, who becomes increasingly mesmerized by her strange behavior. What happens next is just crazy. I can’t say more without spoiling the plot, but I do find it extremely clever how the author begins to entangle her reader in a sea of perplexity, which perfectly parallels the character’s dissent into madness. Oh, didn’t I mention that Yeong-hye also believes she is turning into a tree?
The third and final part of this novel is told by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. I think these chapters are the most tender and pitiful. Although In-hye emerges as the victor of this tale, she deserves more pity than kudos. In-hye (perhaps as many of us do), often feels she is hanging on to reality by a mere thread. And she is haunted by what may have caused her sister’s thread to fray.
If you are feeling confused, that’s okay. You will feel confused while reading the book, too. But I believe it’s worth it. Between its covers, you will find beautiful, rhythmic writing, strange yet endearing characters, inexplicable behavior, flaming trees, and a chance to view the world through a different cultural perspective. And this can only improve one’s vision.