This is a sticky book. It’s kind of stuck in my imagination. I keep turning it over in my head, feeling a little closer to picking up what Kang was putting down. It’s clever but unassuming, sharp, subtle, violent and serene. I don’t really know what to do with it, and that makes me like it more. (I’ll include a few tiny spoilers in this review, but it might be best to go in cold.)
Set in South Korea (this is a translation of what was in the original Korean three novellas) Yeong-hye is an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband and an ordinary life. She suddenly stops eating meat one day, because of a violent dream. This sets off a chain of catastrophes in her (ordinary) family. Her totally boring ordinary husband (who married her because she would be an ordinary wife) is aghast. Her mother and father are aghast. Her brother-in-law wants to have sex with her while they are both painted with flowers. In short, things get weird.
This book is not about vegetarianism, although it’s a heavy metaphor, especially early on in the book. I think it’s about abstention and how much control we have over our participation in society and its norms. Yeong-hye can abstain from meat–so she does. In the second section, she can abstain from desire–so she does. And in the third, she decides to abstain from all of it and become, in effect, a plant. I think this book is about personal extremes in a rigid society of moderation and “ordinary”ness: passion and lust vs detachment and coldness; a passive, responsible housewife who has violent, bloody dreams; a vegetarian surrounded by meat-eaters.
I mean, I think that’s what it’s about. You might disagree. This is a puzzle of a book, with an ending that isn’t fulfilling, really–but I can’t imagine an ending that would be. It’s not that kind of book. It reminds me a lot of Murakami: quiet, plain-spoken, serene, but mystical and weirdly violent, satisfying but…not really. But it’s a little more accessible than Murakami, and feels a little more current.
I liked it, and I think you will too.