Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pushlishing Date: 2016
My rating: ***
This book was something, like I’m sure it was for many of you, that really intrigued me. So many people were reading it and talking about it, including a lot of people who don’t usually read literary fiction. I’ve heard so many mixed opinions on it, and it recently won the Man Booker, so I finally picked it up to read it – after my mum bought it for me as a graduation present. She thought it was hilarious to buy me a book called the vegetarian as we’re both vegetarians. Ha ha, mum.
I’ve seen a lot of people give a synopsis about this book where they say the main character is a woman who decides to become a vegetarian, but I wouldn’t describe it like that. The blurb of this book says it’s a story in three acts, as the book follows three perspectives, all of whom are connected to this woman – her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. So although this woman is the centre of the book, I’d say that it’s about these three characters, and how they each cope differently with mental illness.
That’s really the crux of what I think this book is about: mental illness. After a strange dream, this woman decides to become a vegetarian. (Note: she also cuts out all animal products like eggs, so I’d say she’s a vegan, but this was written by a Korean author so it may just be a culture difference that we make a distinction between the two, or it could be a translation issue.) However, this isn’t just a normal lifestyle change, from the get go it’s clear that there is more going on here than simply changing a diet. So really, I’d say this book follows three different characters and how they each deal differently with having a relationship with someone with a mental illness.
To anyone that wants to read this but is worried it’ll be difficult because it won the Man Booker: don’t be. It has a very easy, simple, writing style. It also jumps right into the plot, which helps to draw you into the book right away. If this isn’t your usual type of book, let me reassure you that you won’t have a problem with the writing style.
I had a fair few problems with this book. I had real trouble with giving it a star rating. I settles on three stars, because usually if I give two stars it’s because there’s something I find glaringly bad about the book. But here, although I had issues with it, I wonder if that’s because I didn’t quite get it. Sometimes I think that we all have such different experiences of like and different outlooks, that sometimes I just won’t get a book that someone else might love.
First, none of the characters were likable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I strongly think that a book doesn’t have to have likable characters to be a likable book. But here, I really felt like something was missing. I felt a real detachment from all of them, and I really feel like a likable character would have pulled me in that little bit closer.
Another problem I had was the choice of which person was used when writing. The first section is written in first person, when I feel like it would have worked really well in third, because again I felt a real sense of detachment from the character that seemed unrealistic to me. I don’t know if this whole sense of distance is a culture difference, but something about it really got under my skin while reading this. The last two section are both in third person, and I think they would have been better in first. Particularly the second section!
The second section is where I have most of my issues. I won’t ever give spoilers in my reviews, but I’m going to phrase this in a way so that hopefully if you’ve read the book you get what I mean. So, there’s some real strange behaviour in this section. The vegetarian woman’s strange behaviour is explain by the fact that she has a mental illness. However, the strange behaviour of the brother-in-law is explained by – nothing! This is where a first person perspective would have been good! What drives him to do those things? They’re pretty drastic and could have extreme consequences, why wasn’t his behaviour rationalised at all?
Overall, the main problem I had with this book is that fact that I know it was trying to make some kind of point methaphorically, but it didn’t work for me. I find it difficult to see metaphor in realism. Particularly when the metaphor centers around behaviour that’s a result of a mental illness. To me, it’s simply a book about mental illness and how it affects three people connected to that person. In this case, I really would have liked the vegetarian woman’s character to be explored more, I’d love more backstory, I’d love a perspective from her. If it’s all about the metaphor and the hidden meanings, I feel like they would have been so much more powerful if the book had leaned towards magical realism at the end, if her thoughts actually came true. In reality, this book sat somewhere in the middle where it didn’t really have an impact on me at all. I wanted so much more out of this book, one way or the other, and I just got something kind of middle of the road. It really didn’t have an affect on me, which is why it was so hard for me to give it a star rating.
People have been raving about this, and it just won the Man Booker, so I feel like I missed something. But hey, these are just my honest thoughts, and what else is this blog for! I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read this, please do let me know what you think in the comments!