Neither a pleasant nor an easy read. Extraordinarily well written, but in many ways that just makes it worse.
The central plot, such as it is, details one woman’s journey to total mental collapse. Yeong-hye, the titular vegetarian, has a dream of blood and guts and gore and gives up eating meat. At first, slowly more and more things are abandoned—societal conventions, sleep, food in general—as she becomes convinced she is a tree. Writing it down like that makes is seem somehow trite, like a particularly cruel joke, and in many ways it is.
There are two things that pull it beyond black comedy, however. The first is the prose, which is almost desolately spare. No a single wasted word, leaving neither the author, the reader, nor the characters anywhere to hide. The second are those characters themselves. The book is divided into three parts, each told from the perspective (if not always in the voice) of three different characters, none of whom are Yeong-hye. This is madness from the outside looking in, as I suppose it must be. The PoV characters are, in turn, her (ex)husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, and only the last in any way approaches being a decent human being. The husband in particular is utterly repellent, holding his wife in the sort of seemingly benign, complacent indifference that ultimately manifests as neglect bordering on abuse.
The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground.
It doesn’t help that his is the first section. It took me several attempts to successfully begin this book, as the first couple of times I made it about five pages in and really began to question whether I wanted to spend two or three hours with this man. The brother-in-law is less obviously repellent, while he too is completely self-serving it’s obviously of a far more pitiable nature, even if his ultimate actions are in many ways worse. It all finally falls back on In-hye, Yeong-hye’s older sister, as she is left almost literally holding the baby. And because she is perhaps the one truly sympathetic character in the book the way she finds herself tortured by familial and social responsibility is genuinely difficult to read.
I’ve got a copy of the same author’s Human Acts on my TBR pile, and as both are fairly short books (this one barely makes it past 180 pages) I thought I might read them back-to-back. Both books have been pulling in the plaudits recently and you may as well see what all the fuss is about, eh? I will, however, be giving myself a necessary bit of breathing space before ploughing onwards. Make sure you’re in a good place before you start reading The Vegetarian, because chances are you won’t be by the time you’ve finished. And that, it’s worth clarifying, is not a criticism at all.