When I mentioned to a friend that I grew interested in reading novels written by international authors–especially those from Eastern cultures, she quickly recommended The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Because I completely respect her opinion, I put it on hold at my local library.
I just finished it, and, wow … there’s quite a bit to digest. (No pun intended.)
On the one hand, The Vegetarian is indeed unlike those books rooted in Western culture. On the other hand, it is an incredibly challenging, almost surreal, work.
Broken into three parts, The Vegetarian is about a women who has decided that she will no longer eat meat. This decision begins to impact her husband and family, and, before long, those other characters attempt to assert their control over her. As a result, conflict arises, but not the kind you would ever expect.
As I read over the above paragraph, I’ve made the plot sound very mundane, perhaps even inconsequential.
Believe me when I say The Vegetarian is anything but.
Because Han Kang is a South Korean writer, and because I read a translated version of the book, I cannot necessarily trust my instincts with this novel because I understand that I may not completely understand the deeper context. However, on the surface, it seems to be that The Vegetarian is very much about freedom of will, the ugliness of abuse in a male dominated society, the exploitation of others in order to achieve sexual satisfaction, and the unwillingness to accept behaviors by loved ones if perceived as being odd or eccentric. It’s rare that we are told to live in a way that makes us happy. It’s far more common to be chastised if we don’t live up to others’ expectations.
For such a slim novel, as you can see, it is stuffed with complexities.
I can’t pretend to completely understand The Vegetarian. I reread the ending several times and remain confounded. I also found it surprisingly eerie, brutally violent, and uncomfortably sensual. However, even with all of that being said, I really and truly did enjoy the book. It’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever read, which is exactly what I hoped for.