The Vegetarian by Han Kang
This dark, visceral novel by South Korean talent Han Kang, has been everywhere lately. I can’t say that I actually enjoyed reading The Vegetarian, but I am glad that I did. My opinion has even improved a bit since I finished it.
The vegetarian in question is Yeong-hye, a woman who decides to avoid meat after having several bloody and traumatic dreams. This decision is viewed with confusion, suspicion, and downright anger by everyone in her life. In this society of conformity and obedience, Yeong-hye’s diet is seen as a dangerous act of rebellion. In a brilliant authorial choice, Kang- much like her characters- does not allow Yeong-hye to have a voice in her own story. Instead, this three-part novel is narrated by her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister.
The Vegetarian is a highly disturbing and enraging novel. In some ways this reminded me of a modern, darker version of The Yellow Wallpaper. I loathed all the of the despicable male characters and at times I felt physically ill. The novel’s powerful yet vague ending did help redeem this reading experience for me however. I was also excited to read a book written my a South Korean author, and thought Han Kang’s writing was quite strong. I look forward to reading more of her work, but hope I will enjoy those books more than I did this.
White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
White is For Witching is a modern, experimental, gothic tale unlike anything I have ever read. Oyeyemi’s prose is lyrical and poetical, but also slightly bizarre. This is not a novel with a traditional beginning or a clearly defined ending. In fact, when I finished the last page, I immediately turned back to reread the first few pages. This helped clear up some of my lingering questions, but many remained unanswered. It is an elusive and mysterious novel that is difficult to describe. This is a book you read not for the plot, but for the language itself.
An eerie, atmospheric read, White is For Witching features a large English country house turned Bed and Breakfast, that may or may not be haunted. Teenage twins Elliot and Miri Silver call this Dover house their home. They, along with their chef father, are grieving the loss of their mother, who was killed while on a photography assignment in Haiti. To complicate matters, Miri is suffering from pica, and continues to crave chalk, dirt, and plastic- becoming thinner and thinner over time. And it seems as if the house itself- which is one of the novel’s unreliable narrators- wants something from her.
In White is For Witching, Oyeyemi masterfully creates a uniquely unsettling reading experience.
A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
It’s been a few months since I finished this unique novel, and I’m still thinking about it. A Tale For the Time Being is a beautifully written, dual narrative story about a bullied Japanese teen girl and a Canadian author with writer’s block. Ozeki’s captivating and philosophical novel tackles themes of time, suicide, loneliness, legacy, truth, and family.
Much of the novel focuses on the written word. Nao narrates her half of the story through her diary, written in a specially refurbished copy of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Author Ruth discovers this diary inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox after it washes up on the beach near her home. Unable to make progress on her own writing, Ruth becomes immersed in Nao’s. She and her husband assume the diary and its accompanying artifacts, have arrived on their Canadian island as a result of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and Tsunami. She, like the reader, becomes attached to this intelligent, lonely teenager, and determined to discover what happened to her.
For her part, Nao wants to create a written legacy of her own life- as well as that of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist Nun- before committing suicide. I really loved Nao’s voice, and wish we could’ve spent more time with her. I loved her quirky humor and her resilience. Part of me hates that we don’t find out her fate at the end, while the other part likes that we are free to imagine it for ourselves. As the character Ruth notes, this “not-knowing keeps all the possibilities open.”
Towards the end, the novel takes a supernatural/ magical turn that I didn’t love. It felt rather jarring and unnecessary. Ozeki’s book would still have been plenty magical without these scenes. Maybe this would have worked better if theses elements had appeared throughout the novel and not merely at the end.
A Tale For the Time Being is a thought-provoking and life-afirming novel that left its mark on my heart.
Have you read any of these unique novels?