Occasionally, an award-winning novel has so much hype that I feel I absolutely have to read it. That’s even more the case if the general Goodreads population concurs with critics in saying it’s a transcendent work of fiction. I used to feel as if maybe I wasn’t intelligent enough to understand some of these novels, as I didn’t enjoy them at all. Was I missing something? What was the huge draw that made people heap praise upon those pages?
I found a beautiful copy of The Vegetarian at work, and was determined to find out.
I’ve been hearing about this book for ages. I’ve seen it pop up on my Goodreads updates feed, I’ve seen it critically reviewed and praised, I’ve seen people reading it on the TTC, and it won the Man Booker International Prize last year as well. I’ve had friends and employers recommend it. So it was with equal parts apprehension and excitement that I cracked open the first page of this book.
First, the prose was undeniably beautiful. Simple, but written with turns of phrase that made it a quick and thoughtful feeling read. My praise to both Han Kang and her translator, Deborah Smith.
The narrative being divided into three parts worked well for me. I found the narrators in the first and second parts to be rather reprehensible people. I wondered as I was reading if I was enjoying myself or not. Why was I seeing events transpire from their point of view? Should I even keep reading? It was only when I came to the last part of the story that I understood the author’s decision to divide the narrative in such a way.
While I later learned that the author wrote this as an allegorical tale, I think it works very well at face value. Though I resent the use of rape as a plot device, the story (sans allegory) was a fragile and disturbing tale of falling further into a madness that has never really been apparent until events begin to escalate.
My favourite perspective was In-hye’s. Through her we learn more of Yeong-hye’s childhood, and of her sister’s similarity to her own husband. In-hye’s narrative was one that made me think the most. It was the most human to me, as she was a likeable character who struggled with her choices and responsibilities, and even resented her sister for lifting the shackles of a life that she couldn’t bring herself to abandon. She drew parallels between events and characters that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
I loved the last part of the novel. Had the entire thing been from In-hye’s perspective, this would have been a five star review. The touches of bizarre and mystical elements also worked well for me.
As it is, I walked away feeling appeased rather than truly satisfied.
Will you enjoy this book? Hard to say. But it’s under 200 pages, and well-worth checking out for the beautiful writing alone. I’ll certainly be reading more of Han Kang’s work.
Have you read The Vegetarian? Share your thoughts in the comments below!