I don’t want to sound biased (given that I am Korean), but damn do Koreans tell really incredible, out-there, freaky stories. Their talents in the soap, drama, and horror genres are obvious in film and TV form (see: Boys Over Flowers or the original version of The Host, both streaming on Netflix at this very moment), but I hadn’t experienced a psychological thriller novel like The Vegetarian before (though I shouldn’t be too surprised, really).
You can tell that this novel, written by Han Kang, a Korean-born writer and poet who has also participated in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is glaringly “not American” just by the way the characters are described: Yeong-hye, the titular vegetarian, is described by her asshole husband as “unremarkable in every way,” and passively accepts his gross behavior like one would (I guess?) in a super patriarchal society. Plagued by recurring nightmares of abstract gore and blood, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating animals, but vegetarianism is a laughable paradox in the meaty food culture of Korea—she’s chastised by her in-laws, she’s treated like an embarrassment, and her food options are extremely limited. Not that it matters to Yeong-hye, because going veg is basically her way of turning into an anorexic. While she goes through the stages of mental illness and her eating disorder, it eventually becomes clear that Yeong-hye actually imagines herself as a plant when she decides to live solely on water and sunlight, wasting away to nothingness. It’s really sad and fucked.
But the book is really, really good in a haunting, magical realism way, if that’s your jam. The Vegetarian actually reminds me a lot of Black Swan, in the way Natalie Portman’s character slowly transforms into her alter ego. Likewise to Black Swan, there’s a lot of violence and turmoil happening both inside and outside of Yeong-hye’s body, and one gets a sense she’s trying to protect and control herself by not eating. The way the story is constructed is also worth noting, told in three separate standalone narratives: the first, by the asshole husband; the second, by Yeong-hye’s artist brother-in-law who gets a disgusting “inspired” hard-on for Yeong-hye’s sickness; and third, by Yeong-hye’s distraught sister who’s just trying to make sense of the situation (while trying to save her sister’s life). The Vegetarian, for as intense as the story is, reads very quickly. It’s the kind of novel you’ll finish in like two days, but will stay with you for way longer than that.