Published by Hogarth on February 2, 2016
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration.
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Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether. A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, The Vegetarian is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.
The Vegetarian takes place over a three-year span, and is divided into three interconnected perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband, her brother-in-law, and finally, her sister In-hye. Wow, did I ever love hating the husband in this one! At first I thought he was just a misogynistic creep.
“It was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.”
But it got far, far worse from there. He’s really a horrible excuse for a human being.
There are elements of horror and surrealism, and something about the dialogue between the characters (especially when confronting Yeong-hye about being a vegetarian) is reminiscent of Grimm’s fairy tales.
The story feels disjointed at first, but by the final third of the book things are starkly (and tragically) very real. This is where things start to come together. There’s a moving theme about the bond between sisters. It also touches on the impact of mental illness and the lonely, difficult burden of being a caretaker.
Then the book just…stops. I actually tend to like loose endings, but this one was frustrating.
Though I enjoyed the style of The Vegetarian, as well as its insights into Korean culture and social dynamics, overall I feel pretty lukewarm about it. It was a good read with some powerful moments, but not one that had a lasting impact on the reader.