John Steinbeck said “No man really knows about other human beings.
The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself.” The Vegetarian is a book that supports his first statement, and shines a light on the inadequacy of the second.
We are all on our own path.
A path that, for the most part, has impenetrable walls built up
It may run alongside that of our family members, or friends, for a while, and we
might even share the odd moment of understanding. But other people essentially remain a mystery, to the point that what seems natural and good to me could appear complete insanity to you. We’re all lost in our own subjective experience.
Yeong-Hye is the vegetarian of the title, a downtrodden woman treated badly by her family and her revolting husband. She rebels by becoming giving up meat. Only it’s not really about that at all.
For a start, she’s not vegetarian; she starts off vegan and then gradually eats fewer and fewer things, until she eschews food altogether as part of her attempt to become a
tree. (Yes, it all gets a bit bonkers.)
Originally written as three separate short stories, this book has multiple narrators who each give us their version of the events around one potent idea – a woman has vivid dreams that convince her she is meant to be plant, not human.
The writing is hypnotic.
I didn’t necessarily care about anyone in the story as an individual, but I was mesmerised by the beauty of the language, and sometimes by the sheer weirdness of it all.
Yeong-Hye oscillates between a role of a spiritual guru leading the way to nirvana, and
someone who is very unwell indeed.
And tellingly, none of the book is told from the perspective of the vegetarian herself; she remains unknowable.
It’s not as esoteric as all this would suggest, though.
This is a beautifully easy, seductive read, and it’s only as you turn away from the page that the “err, what just happened?” kicks in.
This book has been described as an allegory for the political situation in Korea, a feminist cry of rage, and a commentary on dietary choices.
The beauty of The Vegetarian is the ambiguity that allows it to be all these things, and many others, depending on who is holding the book.