The story of a young South Korean woman, Yeong-Hye, who as the result of a recurring dream decides to become a vegetarian. The narrative unfolds from three perspectives, Yeong-Hye's husband, Mr Cheong, her brother-in-law, who is a video artist, and her sister, In-Hye. The reader only ever sees Yeong-Hye through their eyes and like them we are kept guessing as to her true state of mind.
We were curious about South Korean culture; is deciding not to eat meat more abnormal there than it would be here? The novel suggests this is so. One of the strong themes in the book is control, one aspect of which is social control and societal expectations. Initially Yeong-Hye lives up to these as dutiful wife, the only sign of rebellion being her refusal to wear a bra (much to the mixed arousal and mortification of her husband). But when she continues to assert control over her diet and by extension her body this descends into something viewed by the narrators as madness. Is it madness, though, or a refIection of her own internal logic as she attempts to escape a lifetime of violence and oppression.
The concept of metamorphosis is central. Yeong-Hye's mental blankness can be seen as a manifestation of her mental illness although the way the story is constructed there is a certain justification in the thought processes that lead her to conclude her only way to survive is to become a plant. Although the initial trigger for change is her conscious decision to stop eating meat this isn't really a book about vegetarianism. It seemed more a story about someone who was unable to continue to live behind the facade that society demanded of her, and sought escape through attempting to return to nature and the earth.
We were intrigued by Yeong-Hye's relationship with her brother-in-law, the video artist. He was a character whose motivations seemed slightly more clear, carried away by his own mid-life crisis and sexual obssesion (and seemingly able to ignore any qualms of conscience about taking advantage of his wife's mentally ill sister). The middle section with its erotic content, beauty intermingled with violence and once again possession, consensual or otherwise, makes for powerful reading. Both the brother-in-law and the sister, In-Hye, exhibit their own forms of mental disintegration, with In-Hye's, the dutiful daughter, wife and mother who attempts to control her own life through sheer hard work and determination, arguably the most poignant of all.
A divisive book, some of us loved it, some hated it. Hard to think of anything to compare it to. If you enjoyed Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing I would suggest The Vegetarian as something that might intrigue and delight you. Certainly a must for anyone interested in feminism, issues of the female body and control, or who enjoys writing that is poetic, beautiful and at times shocking and strange. (If all else fails it is quite a short, so if you read it and don't enjoy it you won't feel you've spent too much time on it.) The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016.
I thought 'The Vegetarian' tackled a lot of meaty issues. The idea of metamorphosis as a gift or a punishment or an escape intrigued me. Everyone was trying to change the main character. I found the book unsettling and very hard to enjoy. But the lack of resolution meant it has stayed with me more than I would have expected. Interestingly strange.
I didn't enjoy reading this, but it challenged and disturbed me in a way that has kept me thinking about it, particularly the ideas around the female body and our experience of people controlling that body. I found the intersection with art-world judgements about that subject also fascinating. Some images are so shocking you can't help but be changed by them.
I've really enjoyed talking about this and think it was a good book club book, but I didn't find it particularly shocking and I didn't emotionally engage with it at all. I didn't like any of the charaters and for me it was a difficult read about mental illness without having any real sense of sympathy or understanding of that condition.
I wouldn't recommend this to anyone. I didn't have any empathy for the characters, I didn't care about them. Witnessing someone's mental disintegration was never anything but a struggle for me. I didn't enjoy the intellectual challenge of trying to work out what on earth the author was getting at. I'm frankly amazed at all the positive reviews in the media.
I do think my reaction to the book was directly related to my expectations, which were low; in fact I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Like others I wasn't particularly moved or emotionally engaged but I did enjoy reading it and partly that was from the way it was constructed, the unexpected shifts in perspectives with the different narrators.
I don't know who I'd recommend this to, but I thought it unique because of the different perspectives and the visceral way in which she wrote about violence. I don't think I needed to empathise with the characters but I did find them quite hard to understand. I'm glad I read this, though, just because it was so different.
It's the most bizarre, weird book I've ever read in my life but I loved the depiction of madness. I loved the play on frustrated individualism and also the yearning for a deeper connection with nature, the source of life. This did remind me of animé movies such as Ghost in the Shell – they also have a certain bizarre quality, characters are often desperate to do better or be something else. I loved the image of the flowers, beautiful, romantic, honest.
I think I admired this book rather than liked it, but I found the way the author explores the position of women in society, the female body and issues of control and violence absolutely beautiful and poignant and troubling. There are some haunting images here and it wasn't like anything else I've ever read, which is always a delight. I thought the translation excellent.
On a rainy night in January (2017) we gathered at Laura's house to discuss the book and consume, perhaps inappropriately, a completely delicious feast of Korean foods cooked up by Laura's husband Adam. For this book club we were joined by Laura's mum Fay, visiting from Canada, and new What Katy Read recruit Andy.
Also discussed • Competitive stacking • hidden talents (catching things unexpectedly, loading a car boot, packing shopping) • The Alhambra (not to be confused with Córdoba) • the shared note function on the Kindle, and whose notes are they exactly anyway • Kindles versus real books and whether a progress bar is better than a percentage read • A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler • Golden Hill, Francis Spufford • The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson