I view my relationship with books like my relationship with people I just met. Sometimes it feels like fate played a part in it. A book which I never would have thought of reading somehow landed in my hands, much like some people who randomly appear in my life and made an impact.
I was having lunch with a neighbor, something I have never done before in my years of living in this estate. We had just gone bird watching together – something new too – and she started asking what my hobbies are. When I said reading (a safe way to continue the conversation into books), she immediately recommended this book and promptly passed to me as soon as we arrived home.
I read about this book after it won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, a first win for a translated book.
The Vegetarian is told from the perspectives of three persons related to Yeong-Hye, who had a dream and decided to become a vegetarian, much to the chagrin of her husband and her parents.
The first part, narrated by her husband, Mr Cheong in first person, hints at a woman whose behavior is so bizarre he is at a loss. She goes around braless in public and refuses meat in his company’s dinner. At a family dinner hosted by her sister, her father tries to force a piece of meat into her mouth, which ends up tragically when Yeong Hye cuts her wrist with a knife. He realizes he doesn’t know this woman he marries at all.
In the second part narrated by Yeong Hye’s brother in law, an art videographer who lives off his wife. He has a vision of a naked couple painted in flowers having sex but never could put it into his work, until he heard about a Mongolian mark on Yeong Hye’s buttock and the vision comes alive. It is easy convince Yeong Hye and colleague J to let him paint their bodies but J refuses to take part in the sex act. So he paints himself and video their flower-covered bodies coupling. They are discovered the next morning by his wife In Hye who reports them to the asylum.
The final part, narrated in present tense by In Hye, tells of her divorce and how Yeong Hye is dying of starvation in a mental hospital. There is almost a sense of envy at how her younger sister leaves behind reality to live her life as a tree, not eating and wasting away, while she struggles as a single mother to her young son while running a cosmetic retail business.
As a Korean drama fan reading this book, it’s easy to imagine the scenes as they unfold, much like watching a Korean movie – with the abusive father, the dead marriages and finally the strong woman holding the fort, complete with kimchi and side dishes.
It’s a ride of a book, where the destination is uncertain. The Vegetarian in the end, tells of how family members cope with patients suffering from mental illness, either by running away, taking advantage of them, or caring for them in resignation and helplessness, never knowing if they will ever recover.