This is a book which came on to my radar quite a while ago, eventually I got around to it and boy am I glad I did. The Vegetarian is an incredibly powerful book; focusing on a young woman who takes it upon herself to eat a plant-based diet in a country where that just is not the done thing. I was curious about this book, I’m a vegetarian myself (and considering the possibility of becoming vegan) and as this is a very different cultural look at plant-based diets I approached it with what I can only call a morbid curiosity. Not only that, but I’d never read a book by a South Korean author and I really love to branch out across the world with my reading! What surprised me most is this is more than a book about a woman who becomes a vegetarian; it’s an insight in to society in South Korea, and also a tentative narrative about mental illness.
Yeong-hye, our protagonist, after having a vivid dream decides that she is to be a vegetarian – or rather a vegan; upon waking in the middle of the night she goes to the kitchen and rids the house of meat. This is much to her husbands dismay and anger, who says “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.“. We follow this experience of Yeong-hye’s decent in to veganism (as she rids her life of animal based products as well as meat) through the eyes of three members of her family; her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Each of these narrators gets around 60 pages to tell their part of the story. Their sections don’t really overlap, they don’t really have much in common, the only common factor is Yeong-hye. It was a little jumpy in parts, and I wish there was more from Yeong-hye herself but I sort of liked the peripheral look we got at her throughout.
Now, this book is not for the faint of heart – it is frankly quite brutal in places. There is moments of force feeding, there is sexual assault, and I would also say that it could be quite triggering to people with any eating disorder. But that brutality? It really made this book stand out, and I think it will stick with me for that.
I gave this 4* because it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I loved this book, I loved the premise, I loved the decent from the slightly odd to the out-right bizarre, I loved the journey it took me on. I just don’t feel it quite lived up to what I had imagined it to be in my head. I wish this were more of a social look at one woman and her plant-based diet in South Korea and less of a family drama. But really, that’s my only criticism. The prose was absolutely beautiful, and while a lot of that is down to the translator (Deborah Smith), there is no denying that this woman can write! I will definitely be checking out her other novel (Human Acts) at some point in the future.