Book Review: The Vegetarian

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She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

A few years ago, I read Please Look After Mom. I don’t remember the last time I read a Korean novel before that, but suffice it to say it had been a few years. I read Please Look After Mom in English, because although I can read Korean, I knew attempting to read it in Korean might slow me down. Plus, I was curious about how certain words and ideas would be translated into English. I often resort to speaking a mix of English and Korean when in conversation with anyone who understands both languages, since it’s difficult to express certain ideas in both languages. Despite not having lived in Korea for more than ten years, and sometimes feeling disconnected to my culture, I thoroughly enjoyed Please Look After Mom.

The Vegetarian is a novella written by the Korean writer Han Kang. My dad, who often encourages me to explore Korean books and media, mentioned the novel to me, saying that it had won the Man Booker International Prize. When I stumbled onto the book at my local library, I picked it up. It happened to be under 200 pages, so I thought it’d be a quick read. Despite its length, though, The Vegetarian takes some mental energy to get through.

The titular vegetarian is Yeong-hye, a typical Korean housewife who decides to turn to vegetarianism after a disturbing dream. Her decision causes irrevocable damage to her relationships with her husband and family, especially her older sister (who coincidentally shares my name) and brother-in-law. The premise itself is closely tied to contemporary Korean culture, which generally views vegetarianism as a somewhat foolish, unnecessary luxury, other than for Buddhist monks. As a country that experienced extreme poverty until fairly recently, refusing to eat meat is often seen as “being picky”, rather than a valid choice.

I found similar themes in The Vegetarian as in Please Look After Mom, specifically the role of women in Korean society. While Yeong-hye is not a mother, she is a stay-at-home wife whose tasks of cooking every meal for her husband and helping him put on his suit in the morning define her existence. Her husband, and later, her family’s insistence that she cook and eat meat as to avoid discomforting her husband and his business associates is symptomatic of the traditional Korean expectation that a wife sacrifice her personal desires to support her husband. The novel challenges Korean society’s views on family, marriage, sex, and mental health by having Yeong-hye cross almost every line imaginable.

Other than that, there are many passages in the novel that are somewhat gruesome, due to the subject matter of Yeong-hye’s aversion to meat. There are instances of self-harm and sexual assault that made me feel uncomfortable and sometimes queasy. However, I believe this is an important book: one that sheds light on Korean society, while also effectively portraying universally relatable ideas.

YES OR NO?: YESThe Vegetarian is not for everyone, due to its subject matter, which can be graphic and upsetting. However, I would recommend this book for those that are interested. It is short, compelling, thought-provoking, and I believe that you should read something that makes you uncomfortable once in a while.

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Book Review: White Oleander

20170618_160349Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

A few years ago, I read Twilight, mostly out of curiosity. It was insanely popular at the time, as well as derided, so I wanted to form my own opinion of it. I found it dull, somewhat problematic, but not terribly offensive. One aspect of it that was particularly memorable to me (that I’ve since encountered in countless other young adult novels) was the heroine’s utter lack of personality. I thought this was simply due to the author’s lack of talent (Twilight is certainly lacking in many ways), but it’s an intentional move in much of YA literature. The hero or heroine is drawn without any distinguishing personality traits, so that the reader can insert themselves as the protagonist.

White Oleander is a novel about a young woman, but it’s far from YA fiction. When Astrid Magnussen’s mother, Ingrid, is imprisoned for murder, she becomes a part of the foster care system. White Oleander follows Astrid as she transitions from home to home, questioning her relationship with her mothers, learning to adapt to each situation, and suffering terrifying abuse. It’s an eye-opening look into life as a child in the foster care system, which I personally had little foreknowledge of.

Initially, it appears that Astrid is somewhat like your average YA heroine. It’s difficult to determine what her personality is, exactly. But as time goes on, it becomes clear that Astrid’s personalities change depending on her current environment – as she moves to each foster family. My favorite chapters were those detailing her life with Claire, who provides the resources for Astrid’s artistic ability to flourish, while still providing an example of how dysfunction still exists in an upper-class environment. Astrid is a layered, believable, and sympathetic character whose story I could not stop reading.

In addition to the detailed and realistic characterization, White Oleander is written in a lovely, poetic prose. There are some poems included as part of the novel, since Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, is a famed poet. I generally skim over poems and songs when an author chooses to include them, but I found myself genuinely intrigued by Ingrid’s (and, therefore, Fitch’s) use of words and ideas, even for such ugly ends. While Astrid does not comment on her own writing style, the narration is similarly lovingly crafted, poetic and elegant. The novel is also surprisingly easy to read. Even with the constant revolving door of characters, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of who’s who.

My only problem with this novel is the ending, which I wasn’t entirely satisfied by. (But are any of us fully satisfied by any ending?) It seemed a bit contrived, and a tad unrealistic compared to the rest of the plot. Although, I suppose, White Oleander leaves Astrid’s life in a spot of uncertainty, which I suppose is true to the rest of the novel. I was, however, satisfied by the character development Astrid goes through, and the agency that the ending allows for her.

YES OR NO?: YES. This book was selected for Oprah’s book club in 1999. When I mentioned this to an acquaintance, he jokingly said, “Well, if Oprah liked it, it must be good, right?”…but I can’t see how this book is not worth a read. I picked this book up on a whim but was immediately engrossed. I would highly recommend this book for its plot, prose, and characters.