This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated.
I really liked Parasite, the Korean film that won Academy Award for Best Picture. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It made me want to explore more Korean art, including Korean literature. I read a few lists (provided by google searches) of “great Korean literature.” One book was consistently (and prominently) featured in every list: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. So I bought it.
The Vegetarian was one of the strangest, powerfully thought-provoking novels I’ve read in a long, long time.
What is it about?
A woman stops eating meat. Her family does not approve. Then it gets weird.
What is this book like?
I cannot place the book within a clear genre classification. There is no genre in which it comfortably fits. The closest I can come up with is Literary Psychological Horror Family Drama.
I also cannot compare this book to other books. This book defies such easy comparisons; I’ve never read anything like it. When I feebly attempt to do so, I wind up with sentences like “It’s KIND OF like (but not really) a prettier, more thematically complex, Kafka-ish story.”
So, since I cannot place the book within a genre or compare it to other works, I am left with only providing adjectives to describe this novel: strange, disturbing, insightful, darkly amusing, tense, horrifying, gross, stimulating, provocative.
What’s awesome about this book?
The plot is never hard to follow. This book explores important themes: patriarchy, bodily autonomy, mental illness, family, societal pressure, and the immoral nature of life and whether it is possible or desirable to renounce such immorality. It’s weird and unique, and I like unique, weird stuff.
I generally forget about most books that I read. I’ll usually retain a vague sense of the plot and whether or not I enjoyed the reading experience. I will think “that was fun!” or “ugh, that was a chore” or “wow that sucked.” Then I will seek to explain why I felt the way I did on this site, as either encouragement or warning (or sometimes both) to other readers, hopefully without spoiling anything.
I couldn’t shake The Vegetarian. It got under my skin. I couldn’t immediately simplify my thoughts and feelings for the book into a succinct proclamation of the quality of the reading experience. The novel transcends such easy judgment because it encourages deep, critical thought — thought that occurs after the final page, even days later. Very few books have the ability to do that, and I usually find the ones that TRY to do it boring or pretentious. This book ain’t boring or pretentious. It’s intellectual yet still evokes the reader’s emotions, sometimes viscerally so.
What sucks about this book?
Not everybody likes unique, weird stuff. I can definitely understand if this is not someone’s particular cup of tea. There’s not much of a plot, the characters are not exactly likable, and the language can at times feel a bit stilted.
A dark, disturbing, creative, original story, that explores themes that are not-usually explored. A great work of literature.
TLDR: Read this book if you:
- like stuff that is out-of-the-ordinary
- want a book to explore dark, complicated themes
- enjoy thinking about books long after they’ve been read
TLDR: Avoid this book if you:
- want an action-packed plot
- prefer specific genre work
- only like light-hearted or comedic material
Trigger warnings are controversial. There are some who view ANY trigger warning as an unholy spoiler or who believe that it lets readers avoid uncomfortable topics. For those folks, stop reading this section. I personally believe that certain warnings are helpful.
Still here? Ok, for those that would like a warning for such things, there are non-consensual sexual acts depicted in this book.
My Rating: 5 Stars