Thursday, 3 August 2017

Notable Book of the Year 2016 - The Vegetarian


“There's nothing wrong with keeping quiet, after all, hadn't women traditionally been expected to be demure and restrained?”

I've been meaning to write this review for several months now. I got derailed initially by the gruesome discovery of being allergic to Seltzer water, a discovery that was accompanied by pain and exhaustion for many a day. And just when I thought I was okay again, I realized I had my PhD Certifying Exams on the horizon. Fast approaching.

Anyway, after a nice and relaxing vacation (I cleared the exams; thanks for asking) I am back to finish what I started even if it is August and I should be getting ready a list for 2018. I think I have digressed enough.

So, why The Vegetarian? Arguably, the year saw some great works of fiction such as Zadie Smith's Swing Time or Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen. That is true; it's just that my selection is a spectacular achievement on a different plane.

The Vegetarian is a dark, sordid novel. It reads very much like a horror movie. There is an icy feel to it that refuses to leave you. The author's tone immediately makes you believe that just about any bad thing could happen. Split across three parts, the novel touches on the inherent violence in relationships, and how the need to force outliers to conform to societal roles can end up damaging these individuals in the most awful way.

Han Kang is a Korean author who (as I understand it) has often touched on the lack of agency that women have in their lives. The Vegetarian is a gruesome story in the same vein except that its complexity and unpredictability - I struggle to mention any "similar" story - leaves you hooked and in suspense.

It's a short book and it wouldn't do justice to talk about it at great length. Suffice it to say that the main character, Yeong-hye, is introduced as an unremarkable woman who decides to turn vegetarian after seeing a disquieting and mysterious dream. Nothing that follows is quite according to script.

The Vegetarian is grotesque, its invasive imagery only faithfully accentuating the torture Yeong-hye sees through her life with perverse violations of her freedom. If you think you've gained an idea of what the book is about, believe me, you're probably wrong.

It's a story of estrangement with allegory in the class of Kafka. I am disappointed by the Goodreads score on it but then again, I've consistently noticed that the Goodreads community under-rates books that are multi-layered. That's just unfortunate.

Read The Vegetarian to experience a mythical story - it can be lifted from its own context and find resonance - if only through a trying and discomfiting ordeal - anywhere else in the world.
"That shuddering, sordid, gruesome, brutal feeling. Nothing else remains. Murderer or murdererd, experience too vivid to not be real. Determined, disillusioned. Lukewarm, like slightly cooled blood."