Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 1 of 11)

Watership Down – Richard Adams

I’d heard a lot of pop-culture references to Watership Down, but before I read it I didn’t know anything really about it (except that it was about bunnies…? maybe?). Turns out it’s a 1972 children’s adventure novel by English author Richard Adams, based on a meandering story he made up to entertain his daughters during a long road trip.

Watership Down - Richard Adams - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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(His daughters told him it was so good, he should write it down, so he did… only to have it rejected by several publishers on the grounds that it was “too grown up for children”. So, I guess the Adams clan have mature tastes?)

The story is set in the Berkshire and Hampshire countryside, near where Adams and his family lived. As I suspected, it revolves around a group of anthropomorphised rabbits from the Sandleford warren. The inciting incident comes quickly, when a small weirdo rabbit named Fiver has a “frightening vision” of the warren’s imminent destruction.

He convinces his best mate, Hazel, to help him round up as many of their rabbit friends as possible and escape before the Bad Thing comes (he doesn’t know what it is, just that it’s Bad). Most of the rabbits tell them to bugger off, understandably, but a handful of them agree to follow Hazel and Fiver into the great unknown.

The plot device of a psychic rabbit was really quite baffling, but I tried to just go with it – and good thing, too, because most of the action throughout Watership Down relies on Fiver sensing trouble. Other than that, Adams does a pretty convincing job of depicting the lives of rabbits. He even invents language, culture, and mythology for them, so it’s thoroughly believable… again, aside from the preternatural foresight thing.

Anyway, Hazel and Fiver and co. repeatedly escape predators by the skin of their teeth. Sometimes, they befriend them (like the large seagull who later returns to help them fight off other Evil rabbits). They join – and then escape – a warren where rabbits are being bred for food. They build their own warren on Watership Down (yes, it’s the name of a place, rather than a plot point about a sinking vessel), but soon have to face up to the existential crisis of an absence of does (female rabbits). They manage to collect a couple from a nearby farm, but not enough to stave off their colony’s collapse.

So, their big final battle – the long-awaited climax of Watership Down – sees them infiltrate the Efrafra warren, ruled by the tyrannical despot General Woundwort. They manage to smuggle out enough does for requisite babymaking (like rabbits, etc), but the General is not easily defeated.

I’m not sure if I read it “right”, but Watership Down seemed to me like an indictment of anthropogenic climate change and the exploitative agricultural practices of capitalism, cloaked in a children’s story with a few made up words (the language of “lapine”, as invented by Adams). Others have read all kinds of stuff into it, too; it could be an allegory for class struggle, the Cold War, fascism, extremism… basically, Hazel and Fiver and co. are an oppressed minority who just want to LIVE, dammit, and they’ll fight to the death against the forces that would stop them doing so.

Adams, though, insists that it was never his intention to mirror such grown-up realities in his children’s book. He intended Watership Down to be “only a made-up story … in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls,” he told the BBC in 2007. Still, whatever he meant by it, it clearly has motifs and themes that work on multiple levels.

It seemed unnecessarily long, though, particularly toward the end. It all just got a bit formulaic: just as you think the rabbits are safe and happy, a new danger arises that looks set to doom them, only they overcome it by working together and appreciating each other’s strengths. As an armchair editor, I would’ve suggested splitting the story in two, and made the whole Efrafra business a sequel (or, at least, a second volume – Watership Down 2: Back In The Warren).

As it stands, the popularity of this children’s book about bunnies persists, fifty years after its release. It’s won a bunch of awards (including the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize), and it’s been adapted for film and television multiple times (including a 2018 Netflix series). I’m glad to have read it, so I can finally “get” all those pop culture references, but I doubt I’ll be revisiting it – even if there was a kid around to read it to, I doubt I could get them to sit still for long enough.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Watership Down:

  • “Uhh it was good uhh hmm which should I say uuh genralwoundfart or whatever the &)@?@! His name is loo” – nickie
  • “I believe that some time ago, some kid read this, and then began replacing the rabbits for zombies, thus, the walking dead was born.” – Mauricio Cerna
  • “Beautiful writing and boring story!” – N. Lassiter
  • “I did not enjoy Watership Down. It hink that it was pointless to write a 400+ page long book about bunnies having problems.” – N:) *

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides tends more towards writing short fiction than he does full-length novels… but damn, when he turns it on, he really turns it on. Middlesex is his 2002 novel inspired by the 19th-century diary of a French convent student who was intersex. He worked for nine years, writing and re-writing, until he managed to weave together a story that was both epic and introspective.

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Middlesex begins with Cal, aged 41, looking back on “this rollercoaster ride of a gene through time”. Ostensibly styled as Cal’s memoir, the first half-or-so of the book is more of a family saga, the internal logic being that tracing the Stephanides family tree is essential to understanding the unique circumstances and coincidences that gave rise to Cal’s genetic 5-alpha-reductase deficiency.

See, Middlesex is also a gender novel: Cal is intersex. They were assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB, in today’s parlance), due to their ambiguous-appearing genitals and the negligence of the family doctor’s examination. As such, they were raised as a girl. However, they have testes, and their secondary sex characteristics that emerge during puberty are typically male.

That’s the big ticket item, the reason most people come to Middlesex – but it’s a shame, because there’s a lot more to this story than Cal’s gender identity.

To take it all the way back to the beginning (as Cal does): their grandparents were, ahem, cut from the same branch of the family tree. Yes, they were brother and sister before they were husband and wife, before Game Of Thrones made it cool. They were displaced during the early 20th century conflict between Greeks and Turks, and managed – by the skin of their teeth – to emigrate to the United States. So, it’s an immigrant story, about ethnic identity and the American Dream, as much as it’s anything else.

The family saga is like Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets The Slap-era Christos Tsiolkas. Eugenides, through Cal, paints an incredibly detailed portrait of three generations (from conception to death) against the backdrop of major historical events, including the 1967 Detroit Riot and Watergate. Of course, this requires some funky twists and turns in Cal’s narration. Eugenides allows his protagonist unrealistic insight into other characters’ thoughts, a kind of omniscient-first-person at times, but somehow he makes it flow very naturally (think Melville’s narration by Ishmael in Moby Dick).

And, an important side note: in addition to being preternaturally insightful, Cal is FUNNY. Like, no one calls Middlesex a comedy, but I literally lol’d several times. It’s not all doom and gloom!

I suppose I can’t ignore the sex and gender themes of Middlesex forever. So, deep breath, here we go…

First off, no, Eugenides is not intersex himself. He drew a lot of details for Middlesex (particularly around Greek American families and geography) from his real life, but not the gender bit. As he explains it:

Because the story is so far from my own experience, I had to use a lot of details from my own life to ground it in reality, to make it believable for me and then hopefully for the reader, as well. So I would use my own physical appearance. I would use details from my grandparents’ life, the streets they lived on, the kinds of places they lived. And all this made it real for me because it was a tall order to write such a story.

Jeffrey Eugenides (On Middlesex)

Of course, adopting the voice of an intersex character for a novel is a controversial choice by today’s standards, but at least Eugenides took it seriously. It wasn’t a gimmick to sell books: Cal’s voice and identity are central to the story. Eugenides spent years researching intersex biology and politics. Learning about 5-alpha-reductase deficiency actually changed the shape and scope of the story (initially, Eugenides had envisaged Middlesex as a short fictional autobiography, but learning that this condition primarily arises in isolated inbred populations led him to explore the epic history of Cal’s family).

Also controversial is the language Cal (slash Eugenides) uses throughout the novel. By the end, Cal explicitly rejects the essentialism underlying “traditional” definitions of sex and gender – Cal is neither “really” a boy, nor “really” a girl, regardless of clothing or the assumptions of others – but Eugenides uses he/him pronouns to describe the character. I’ve chosen not to in this review, because it simply didn’t feel accurate or natural based on the days I’ve spent with Cal while reading Middlesex. I suspect, if the novel were written and published today, they would be using gender neutral pronouns.

Then, there’s the language Cal uses to describe their identity. They shift between using “intersex” (when talking in the abstract, regarding activism and so forth) and the now-objectionable “hermaphrodite”. Eugenides has been asked directly why he used this term, and I thought his justification was pretty sound: it’s used by Cal in the context of their identification and engagement with Hermaphroditus, among other characters of Greek mythology and history. “When speaking about real people, I should—and I do my best to—use the term ‘intersex’,” he said. He also pointed to the journal Hermaphrodites With Attitude (published by the Intersex Society of North America) as an example of the reclaiming of the word by intersex people, akin to the reclaiming of the word “queer”.

Nevertheless, even though the language is a bit outdated (twenty years is a long time in LGBTIQ+ politics and science!), there’s a ring of authenticity in Eugenides’ portrayal, and a sensibility that I think transcends nomenclature. He has been largely praised by queer and intersex reviewers for his sensitive and insightful depiction of an intersex character, which is more than most cis-het men could ever hope for. The exception would be the handful of reviewers and scholars who have criticised Eugenides for supposedly “erasing lesbian identities” (as Cal only openly explores their attraction to women once they begin presenting as a man). I think that’s a bit rich, to be honest; Middlesex is already a huge sweeping epic, and adding an extra hundred pages for Cal to explore lesbianism would have felt like inauthentic overkill.

But I circle back to my original point: Middlesex is much more than a gender novel. Adam Begley described it as “a hybrid form, epic crossed with history, romance, comedy, tragedy” in his review for the New York Observer, and that’s spot on. It’s a big book, in length, depth, and breadth, and yet it’s compelling and thoroughly readable. If you’ve held off reading Middlesex, feeling skeptical or intimidated, you really shouldn’t wait any longer.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Middlesex:

  • “When the incestuous couple really started tucking into each other, I finally googled the author’s motivation in having incest as a major plot element, and it turns out he threw that in there just because he needed to explain the main character’s intersex condition. Ugh. C’mon Eugenides. There are a lot of other ways you could have peeled that banana.” – Julia
  • “This is a horrible and dull book. Rotten in every way. It starts with a really stupid and misleading line. “I was born on an incredibly smogless day in Detroit”. There is NEVER any smog in Detroit. The rest of the book is just as bad. There should be a stack of these books about 1/2 of a mile high for the author to jump off of.” – Michael
  • “Seriously? Incest stories about the protagonist’s grandmother is what makes good reading these days? No thanks.” – maranda green harris

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

Junior (aka Arnold Spirit) is a budding cartoonist-slash-basketball player who has lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation for all fourteen years of his life (so far). In The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian, he describes the series of circumstances that led up to him deciding to transfer to the all-white high-school miles away, instead of the Indian high-school closer to home, and what that means for his life and his loved ones.

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Junior was “born with water on the brain” (the way his family has always described his condition, known to most of us as hydrocephalus). He wasn’t expected to survive the emergency surgery to drain it, but he did. He now lives with several physical disabilities, which have been compounded over time by his limited access to healthcare. Though he mentions his disabilities from time to time, they’re not a major part of his story. That’s the first check in The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian‘s column – how often do you read a story about a character who lives with a disability but isn’t defined by that disability?

He tells his story diary-style (accompanied by fantastic illustrations, in real-life contributed by Ellen Forney). He describes his home life (troubled), his friendship with Rowdy (dysfunctional), and his confusion about the way the world works, and his role in it.

When Junior decides to attend the all-white high-school 22 miles away, his community is split. His family – though poor and unreliable – support him the best they can. Rowdy, however, is enraged, and the schism that appears between him and Junior is the major conflict throughout the course of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. They have very little contact once Junior transfers, only really seeing one another on the basketball court (an already-fraught situation, given that poor Junior has to play against his former schoolmates in his new team’s colours – yes, symbolism, etc.).

Junior has a lot of insight into racial injustice and poverty for a fourteen-year-old, but given his life circumstances, it’s completely believable. Over the course of the year depicted in his diary, he suffers a lot of personal tragedies – many related to alcohol abuse. You might think that would make The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian a real bummer, or at least yet-another grim perspective on the problems faced by non-white communities, but Alexie (via Junior) is careful to keep the tone frank and hopeful. Even when things are demonstrably shit, Junior makes a point of noting the silver linings.

Speaking of Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is famously semi-autobiographical. Like Junior, Alexie was born with hydrocephalus and grew up on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, raised by and around people with severe alcohol addiction. The story actually started out as a memoir, but Alexie’s editor convinced him to make it a young adult novel. He has since said: “If I were to guess at the percentage, it would be about seventy-eight percent true.”

And here’s how you know The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is good: heaps of people want it banned. Seriously, it’s up there with The Satanic Verses for controversy. It was the most-frequently banned and challenged book in the United States from 2010-2019, and has appeared in the top-ten list of banned and challenged books almost every year since then. And boy, do its critics have a laundry list of complaints: offensive language, cultural insensitivity, “anti-family” content, “anti-Christian” content, depiction of bullying, depiction of gambling, depiction of racism, depiction of violence, sexual references, references to drugs and alcohol… I could go on. Basically, there’s nothing in this book that the wowsers didn’t take issue with EXCEPT the one thing I think ACTUALLY warrants it: big-time trigger warning for dog death in Chapter 2!

It’d be nice to leave it there, but unfortunately, there’s a really big issue that has to be addressed in any conversation about The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian: the #MeToo allegations raised against Sherman Alexie in 2018. Ten different women reported inappropriate and harmful behaviour perpetrated by Alexie: sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances, and other forms of relational mistreatment. They alleged that Alexie traded on his power in the literary scene to lure women and silence them. As a result, several organisations and institutions removed Alexie’s name from awards and other honours, and the young adult literature community generally stepped back from the golden boy.

Alexie released a written statement acknowledging that he “has harmed” others, and that “there are women telling the truth”, with a partial apology. I’ve read and re-read the statement, and I’m afraid what sticks with me more than his apparent expression of regret is his determined efforts to discount and discredit the woman who first raised the allegations publicly, Litsa Dremousis.

So, unfortunately, we have another great book with wide appeal written by a man who turns out to be a bit of a shit. It’s a real shame how often this happens. The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian was a good young-adult read, but art does not and cannot exist in a vacuum.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian:

  • “Great book. I didn’t want to purchase this but my dog ate my sons and it was the schools, so I had to replace it.” – Natalie
  • “Laugh your bottom off funny” – Gopher Hunter
  • “This book is not just for kids, I am an old person , a dO laugh so much h that I wanted my husband to read this ., And how true of what he wrote, I’ve mermaids like his story. Cookbooks” – 711/2
  • “Shame on Scholastic for putting this on their reading list! Disgusting book!” – Donna Johnson
  • “My book smelled like cat pee!!! So did the package! I sprayed it with lysol because I needed it for school the next day it’s fine now.” – Felicity Burkhead

Beloved – Toni Morrison

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an outpouring of grief for an author who passed away like that I saw after Toni Morrison passed in August 2019. My Instagram was flooded with quotes and remembrances to the Great American Novelist, and the book referenced most often in this eulogy-en-masse was Beloved. I’d heard a lot about it prior to then, of course, but never actually read it… until now. Yes, Keeper Upperers, I have finally read Morrison’s most-beloved novel.

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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First, a bit of history (because you can’t read or understand Beloved without its history): the story was inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner. She was a slave who escaped from Kentucky and fled to the free state of Ohio in 1856. When U.S. marshals busted into her cabin and arrested her, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, they found that she had killed her own two-year-old daughter and was attempting to kill her other children. The motive, as we understand it today, was to prevent her children being returned to a life of slavery – a fate worse than death. Morrison came across Garner’s story in an old newspaper article, and reproduced it later in a compilation of black history in 1974. But Morrison wasn’t done with Garner’s story; it was the seed that grew into Beloved.

Beloved is dedicated to “Sixty Million and more” – a reference to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade. Morrison lamented the fact that there was no true memorial to the deaths of those men, women, and children, and so Beloved became her own personal tribute. Upon accepting the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award in 1988, she said: “There’s no small bench by the side of the road. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”

The story of Beloved begins in 1873, with Sethe – a formerly enslaved woman – and her daughter Denver living at 124 Bluestone Road, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sethe’s older sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away years ago. The house is haunted, see, by the memories and inherited trauma of Sethe’s past, which are personified in the ghost of the child she buried. The child was never formally named, but buried beneath a tombstone with the only phrase Sethe could remember from her Christian funeral: Beloved. (She would have had “Dearly Beloved” engraved, only her “services” to the engraver only purchased her ten minutes of time to carve a name.) Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law and a fellow escaped slave, also lived at 124 Bluestone Road, but she died shortly after the boys ran away, eight years before Beloved begins. The early chapters of the novel sketch out this rough history, and Morrison’s capacity to take your breath away with her blunt insight is on full display.

[The plantation] never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.

Beloved (Page 7)

Morrison doesn’t just give you one inciting incident: she gives you two. First is the arrival of Paul D, another enslaved man from Sweet Home (the plantation where Sethe, Baby Suggs, and several other characters were ‘owned’). A romance kindles quickly between him and Sethe, but the ghost of Beloved freaks him the heck out and he banishes her with a lot of shouting and table-flipping. It takes a bit of doing, but eventually he wins Denver over, and the three of them attend a local carnival as a family, happy to be rid of the ghost that haunted them.

When they return to 124 Bluestone Road, however, a young woman (yes, this is the second inciting incident, hold onto your hats, people!) is waiting for them on the front step. She calls herself – durn, durn, durn – Beloved. Sethe is charmed by the young woman and takes her in, despite Paul D’s repeated warnings that it could only lead to trouble. Denver has no problems believing that this Beloved is her deceased sister manifest, and quickly develops an intense bond with her.

Naturally, the manifest ghost starts causing all kinds of problems. First, she bewitches Denver. Then, she charms Paul D into a bonk. He’s disgusted with himself, and triggered by the memories of Sweet Home that the sex with Beloved recalls, and (somewhat inexplicably) he decides the best way to deal with it all is to get Sethe knocked up. Only, when he tells his friends about it, one of them – Stamp Paid – reveals Sethe’s deepest, darkest secret (uncool, but kind of warranted).

You ready for the big spoiler? It’s coming, ready or not!

Sethe killed her infant. After she’d escaped Sweet Home and made it to Baby Sugg’s house at 124 Bluestone Road, four horsemen came looking for her with bad intentions. Hearing that they were clip-clopping up the street, Sethe ran to the woodshed where her children were and tried to kill them all, but Beloved was the only one she had time to knock on the head. Eeek!

Paul D confronts Sethe, and ultimately leaves her, saying that her love for her children is “too thick”. She holds firm in her position that “thin love is no love” and that she did the right thing in killing Beloved. She has all the evidence she needs; Beloved has come back to her.

After Paul D runs off, Beloved consumes Sethe’s every waking thought and movement. She hardly eats, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger, eventually appearing to be pregnant. Denver is kind of freaked out by all of this (understandably), and braves her fear of the Cincinnati streets to go out in seek of help. The local women come to her aid, to exorcise Beloved – figuring, naturally, that she’s a ghost who’ll flee at the whiff of some holy water – coincidentally at the same time as the landlord of 124 Bluestone Road comes trotting up on his horse.

It’s all too much for Sethe, who is big-time triggered by the memory of those horsemen coming for her and her children to return them to Sweet Home, and she has a breakdown. Beloved disappears, and Sethe never recovers. She remains bed-ridden for the rest of her life, and Paul D returns to find her a shell of her former self. Over the years, everyone forgets about Beloved, until all traces of her are gone.

Phew! Do you need a second? I sure did, after I finished reading Beloved.

So, what was the character Beloved? A ghost? A coincidence? That question is the heart of this story, and probably a big part of the reason it has captured so much popular and academic attention. Morrison told us plainly that she was the daughter that Sethe killed, but we can all kind of tell that she’s also a symbol, a manifestation of the repressed trauma of slavery.

Beloved smacks of a book that needs to be re-read over and over again to be appreciated fully. I wanted to love it outright; everyone said that I would and that I should… but I didn’t, really. In fairness, lockdown probably wasn’t the right time for me to read it. There’s some future me who will re-read it and find it completely wonderful, but the present me can only concede that it was a brilliant but not enjoyable read. A lot of Morrison’s cleverness didn’t really “click” until later, writing up this review (e.g., the Schoolteacher from Sweet Home was never named, but all of the former slaves and children of slaves were, a very interesting subversion and re-claiming of the narrative). Basically, I didn’t have the brain space for Beloved, which I regret – and I’d recommend you don’t pick it up until you do.

Luckily, a lot of people far wiser than me read it when their brains weren’t turned to mush by the Delta variant. Beloved was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award, and it was ranked as the best work of American fiction (by literary critics for the New York Times) from 1981-2006.

Incredibly, despite what it has to teach students about history and about writing craft, Beloved has been banned from five U.S. schools since 2007 (let alone all the times it was challenged and banned before that). Apparently, some parents don’t want their precious progeny exposed to “bestiality, infanticide, sex, and violence”, even in fiction. Every great book, it seems, has a long history of being banned and censored, and Beloved is no exception.

If you’d asked me before I started writing this review, I would have said – with certainty – that Beloved was universally… well, beloved. It’s only since I started Googling possible reasons for my own ambivalence towards it – it just wasn’t a fun read, you know? – that I encountered some pretty heavy criticism. It’s been called sentimental, sensational, overwritten, and overblown. But, despite that criticism (and my own mixed feelings), I must acknowledge that Beloved is a book that has taken on mythical proportions in cultural significance. Its importance in representing the impact of inherited trauma, correcting the false narrative around slavery, and giving voice to African Americans cannot be denied… regardless of one person’s experience of reading it.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Once in a while, when you’re lucky, the book you pick up will have an opening line that will catch your eye and drag it down the page. Take this one, from The Vegetarian: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Isn’t that just… *chef’s kiss*? It promises a fascinating story to come. The Vegetarian is “a beautiful, unsettling novel in three acts about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul”, and it’s off to a strong start.

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As the opening line suggests, The Vegetarian is a story about Yeong-hye, an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband, who up-ends her life and the lives of those around her by deciding to commit to vegetarianism. In Part One, narrated by her office worker husband, she wakes from repeated visceral dreams of slaughter and blood. He finds her standing in front of the fridge in the middle of the night, calmly removing all animal products and summarily binning them.

To her husband (who gave me a Humbert Humbert vibe, though not in a way I can articulate clearly – is it his self-interest? his unshakeable expectation that the whole world should naturally submit to his inclinations?), this is a shocking act of subversion, only worsened by Yeong-hye’s steadfast commitment to the whole thing. She attends one of his business dinners, with colleagues he’s desperate to impress, and offends them all by refusing to swallow their meat, and their attempts at small talk into the bargain. His reaction runs the gamut from frustration to horror to rage. When even Yeong-hye’s family cannot convince her to take a bite of pork, he declares her unwillingness to submit to his will untenable, and divorces her.

“Now don’t go making me out to be some kind of villain. Anyone can see that I’m the real victim here.”

The Vegetarian (Page 70)

Throughout this initial section, the husband’s narration is occasionally interrupted, in shocking contrast, by italicised passages from the perspective of Yeong-hye (the only opportunity in The Vegetarian that she has to speak for herself). These interjections are visceral, stomach-churning, and I must offer a big-time trigger warning for cruelty towards animals (specifically a dog). That was almost enough to put me off The Vegetarian altogether, but I persisted for the purposes of this review.

Part Two of The Vegetarian is set two years after Yeong-hye’s conversion. It’s told in third-person, and focuses this time on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a flailing (slash failing) artist with his own bizarre obsessions. He is haunted by images that he struggles to distill into art, a love-making scene between two people decorated with painted flowers.

Conveniently enough, Yeong-hye has a petal-shaped birthmark. Now that she’s all crazy and vego and everything, he figures she might just be game to pose for him – which she does. He paints flowers all over her body, and that of a male model too, but unfortunately the male model is unable or unwilling to, ahem, perform as he should. So, the brother-in-law steps in to do it himself. What a guy!

When his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister, discovers evidence of their (ahem!) “art”, she calls emergency services and claims that it’s evidence of mental illness. They are both escorted away, and Yeong-hye is institutionalised for “treatment”.

In Part Three, Yeong-hye’s sister visits her at the psychiatric hospital every Wednesday. Yeong-hye is still refusing to eat meat, eventually refusing to eat altogether, and seems to have started identifying as a tree. The sister is confused, fearful, and – strangely – a little jealous. She wonders if she had no children, like Yeong-hye, whether she might be free to sever her connection to reality as well. The doctors try to force feed Yeong-hye in front of her sister, which is thoroughly distressing to all involved. The story ends with Yeong-hye and her sister in an ambulance, Yeong-hye being transferred to another hospital for end-of-life care (if you don’t eat, you don’t shit, and if you don’t shit, you die).

So, The Vegetarian is a pretty fucked-up twisted story, all told, and one that (ironically) says very little about the philosophy of vegetarianism or why one might wish to eschew meat from their diet. It actually began as a short story, which Kang says drew on her strange idea of “a woman turning into a plant”. Don’t come to this book looking for an impassioned defense of animal rights or the case for plant-based foods; instead, you’ll find an allegory about patriarchal oppression in Korean society and the ways that etiquette can kill.

The bait-and-switch of the title doesn’t seem to have affected the book’s reach, however. Since its initial publication in Korean in 2007, it has been translated into 23 different languages around the world. This version, “elegantly translated into bone-spare English” by Deborah Smith, was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 (it beat out the front-runner, Elena Ferrante’s The Story Of A Lost Child). The award catapulted The Vegetarian to the top of book wishlists, and the publishers had to work overtime to fulfill 462,000 orders. Kang said she was “overwhelmed, [she] thought the previous 20,000 copies sold was good enough”.

I’m not sure whether I actually enjoyed The Vegetarian, or whether it was simply a gruesome scene from which I couldn’t pull my eyes. It was certainly well-written, and short – I read it in a single sitting without actually trying to do so. It’s a compelling read, but also (at times) a horrifying one. The vegetarianism angle is interesting, but I’m not sure it makes any points that haven’t already been made more memorably elsewhere. All in all, the only way to know if The Vegetarian is for you is to try it – as it is with everything, suck it and see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Vegetarian:

  • “I can honestly say that after reading this book I felt dirty and offended by its very existence. And in case you were misled by the title — no, it’s not about vegetarianism. This book is grotesque, bizarre, and has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I found myself wanting to violently torture to death the main character almost from the first page. I read it through to the end only because I was waiting for the non-horrible parts to emerge or at least to watch this miserable wretch of a main character finally die. Neither thing happened. Every line of this book was a defilement of my brain cells and an assault on my will to live. This book literally made me wish I were dead just so I could escape the memory of having read it.” – Chloe pitbull
  • “I didn’t read this- but my sister did, her name is bucky. she liked it a lot. talked about it a lot. She even finished reading it (usually she just pretends to finish books) but she finished this one, which is why I gave it five stars.” – Muna Amry
  • “After the first twenty pages, I was like “Yeah, this is great.” By the time I got to page 80, I was like “Hmmm, I don’t want to finish this.” Would have been a good short story. Also, this made me want to eat more meat since the vegetarian in the book is so unlikable.” – Eli Cook
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