Translated from Korean, this is the kind of story that's hard to define; a sort of character study, I suppose, of the titular vegetarian (though the diet she chooses to follow is actually vegan), the inscrutable Yeong-hye. The book is made up of three 'acts', each observing Yeong-hye from the point of view of a different person - her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. In her husband's version, she's the very picture of dull domesticity, a woman he has chosen specifically because she's plain and boring. In her brother-in-law's, she's recognisable, but interpreted in a wildly different way - an always-calm enigma with a unique sense of self-possession. In her sister's - perhaps unsurprisingly the most complicated - she's two things at once, a victim and a manipulator, an emaciated psychiatric patient who is nevertheless perfectly capable of controlling (and often frustrating) those around her.
While it's intriguing from the beginning, the second part of the novel is where the story really comes alive. It depicts Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, a character known simply as J, succumbing to an intense erotic obsession with her. He has long envisioned an art project, a potential magnum opus, which involves a woman's body being painted with huge, elaborate flowers, and after discovering by chance that Yeong-hye still has a 'Mongolian mark' - a type of birthmark that usually vanishes in childhood - his lust for her becomes bound up with his artistic obsession; as the pages turn he becomes more and more convinced that she is the only possible subject. At points this narrative has a feverish sexual charge, but at the same time it shows Yeong-hye rejecting any such objectification - in J's words, she has 'a body from which all desire had been eliminated', yet he is unable to stop desiring her, and that desire is expressed in two inextricable ways, sexual and artistic. She happily participates in his art project, but she's detached from what it means to him, simply indulging his cravings. It's hard to say what makes this - the juxtaposition of erotic scenes and, well, anti-eroticism - work so well, as of course it's not a matter of merely saying it. It's surely symbolic that Yeong-hye's body literally becomes a blank canvas on which J paints; the most explicit expression of a theme running through the novel.
It seemed enough for her to just deal with whatever it was that came her way, calmly and without fuss. Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface. What suggested to him that this might be the case was that, on occasion, her eyes would seem to reflect a kind of violence that could not simply be dismissed as passivity or idiocy or indifference, and which she would appear to be struggling to suppress. Just then she was staring down at her feet, her hands wrapped around the mug, shoulders hunched like a baby chick trying to get warm. And yet she didn't look at all pitiful sitting there; instead, it made her appear uncommonly hard and self-contained, so much so that anyone watching would feel uneasy, and want to look away.We know from the first part of the novel that Yeong-hye has decided to reject not only meat, but a great deal of food in general, following a series of gruesome, bloody dreams. Toward the end, when the narrative focus switches to her sister In-hye, we see where this has taken her; she is close to death. Yet we sense she's still in control of her fate, playing a game those around her are oblivious to, as she has throughout the novel. Her steely reserve, the 'hard and self-contained' quality that J sees, is maintained to the end. While books that skirt around their main characters, seeing them only through others' eyes, often make that central character shallow and unbelievable as a result, The Vegetarian triumphs in its portrayal of Yeong-hye. She's always the most important figure in the story, though there's a clear sense of others projecting their expectations, wishes, insecurities onto her. (In the first act, she's only 'my wife'; a role, not a name.)
It's hard to put into words what makes The Vegetarian so compelling, but it's a truly spellbinding story which flows beautifully; it has an atmosphere that's almost completely unique. It's equally hard to pin down what it's really about. Food, sex, art, asceticism, the nature of desire, the power of determining one's own identity? Or of self-destruction? The relationship between people and nature is a recurring motif - one that reaches its climax when In-hye pays her last visit to Yeong-hye, the latter now seeming to believe she is becoming a tree, while In-hye is plagued by memories of her sister and thoughts of her wandering the forest. In-hye is drawn to a destructive part of her own self - and to the dark, elemental power represented by the mountain where she walks at night. Like the cleverly designed UK cover, nature in this book is at first glance benign; at second utterly macabre.
I received an advance review copy of The Vegetarian from the publisher through NetGalley.
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