For anyone interested in Korean culture this is a must read. Unfortunately I have to say that I was disappointed, but with a book from Korea, with the title “the vegetarian” and a Man Booker Prize, my bar was very high when I started reading.
I would say that the first part of the book (the book is written in three parts) and the last pages of the last part are very good. Particularly in the first part interesting ideas are explored in interesting ways. The way we see the world from her husband’s perspective, while also getting glimpses from what might be described as the main character, is done brilliantly. Here we are invited to follow a “normal” perspective as it collides with someone looking at the world in a different way. The way the two perspectives are contrasted is done in a very captivating way.
The economic story telling from the perspective of the “vegetarian” is really impressive. Deep emotions are captured in dreamlike sequences, that are to a large extent dreams, in a way that I think will see other authors mimic.
It is almost as if a brilliant idea, the first part, was too radical for the editor. In order for it to be published they had to add parts that would interest more traditional target groups. For me this feels like an possible explanation for the contrast in quality.
In the last two parts the book turns into more of a traditional story in the way it approaches conventions, while also losing almost all interesting links to vegetarianism. It feels as a students attempt to approach the conservative parts of Korean society in a style that captures the simple parts of fin de siècle literature in Europe. The focus is on family values, sex and insanity in ways that has been done many times before, and often better.
Perhaps the best way to describe the book is through this quote:
“As she rolls up her trousers to keep them out of the wet, she notices the flaxleaf fleabane which has broken through the asphalt here and there. She adjusts her heavy bag, trying to ease her shoulders, puts up the umbrella and starts walking towards the hospital.”
I think the book should have stayed with the flaxleaf fleabane and explored it and the asphalt, instead of just rushing to new places all the time.
If you are interested in Korea/Asia and how a modern society can look like you should definitely read it. If you are interested in reflections related to vegetarianism (or any other ideas) this is probably not for you.
I’m very happy to see a Korean book translated, so I’m happy I bought it and hope my small contribution will support further translations.