The Vegetarian is this year’s Man Booker International Prize winner, but I’ve seen very mixed reviews since it was awarded the prize last May. I like to watch BookTube videos, and that community seems to be simultaneously obsessed with the Man Booker prize and disapproving of every novel that is shortlisted for it, so I never know what to think. I saw the name so often in the last few months that I picked it up during my Powell’s shopping spree at the end of the summer just to see what the deal was.
I’m also on the hunt for a good list of books, whether that’s a list of prize winners or a random organization’s ‘top 100 novels’ list, because I finished my Classics Club list half a year ago and I’ve been floating directionless ever since. I need a checklist to ignore.
This is, as you might guess, about a woman who becomes a vegetarian. She makes this change in her life because of a dream, and her husband is appalled. Forgoing meat in South Korea is already a strange and subversive act to some, but she takes it even further by throwing out all of the meat in the house and finding herself disgusted by the lunch meat smell when her husband returns from work. This goes well beyond a change in diet, however, as she becomes more and more listless and withdrawn as time goes on.
It’s hard to understand what’s happening to her. She isn’t the narrator, and she doesn’t even attempt to discuss her thoughts, so most of the novel involves other people becoming frustrated with the main character and treating her horribly, particularly the men in her life. Her husband is one of the most selfish characters I’ve come across in a while, and most of the other characters aren’t much better. The novel starts off quite dark and really doesn’t let up.
It’s an interesting read. Knowing nothing about the author or story going in, I was questioning whether she was experiencing something supernatural or suffering from a mental illness, and in either case whether she would find the help she needs. Han Kang did a brilliant job, particularly in the last section of the novel, in conveying the feeling of helplessness and frustration that comes with trying to support someone who doesn’t want to, or is incapable of, change. Showing plainly how heartbreaking it can be to watch someone hurt themselves.
I found myself interested in the story from start to finish. The writing was simple while still being very evocative. I want to note that Deborah Smith, the translator, apparently began learning Korean in 2010, and this was the first novel she translated. To start learning a language relatively recently, and now have a shared Man Booker prize, is pretty incredible. She did a great job with this.
As with the last Man Booker novel I read, The Sea, it felt like it wasn’t as full a package as I’d expect from the winner of one of the most prestigious literary awards, but it’s definitely a read that sticks in your mind for a long time after.