Title: Human Acts
Author: Han Kang
Translator: Deborah Smith
Published by: Portobello Books
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
After reading The Vegetarian last summer and not enjoying it that much, I was a little unsure about starting another book by Han Kang. I was so glad to have been proven wrong because this was one of the best books I read in 2016.
Human Acts is a beautiful and brutal book. This is the story of the 1980 student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, not only the events as they unfold but the reverberation of their impact over time, told from multiple perspectives from 1980 to 2013.
Human Acts open with the bodies. Dong-ho, a middle school student, is looking for the bodies of his best friend, Jeong-dae, and Jeong-dae’s sister Jeong-mi. Two young women, Eun-sook and Seon-ju, are both university students, who, having been forced to stop their studies due to the protest, are working as volunteers to clean and identity the deceased killed by the police during the protests. Jin-su is another university student, procuring supplies and trying to drum up support for the student protest movement. Their stories all converge together one afternoon, as the city waits breathless for the army to being rolling in and enact a city-wide shut down.
What I love about Human Acts is that it isn’t a traditional narrative in how it follows characters through the book. Instead the reader must draw connections as Kang shifts from perspectives and time periods. Through this, Kang is able to demonstrate the impact of the protests over time. An event like this is not something people get over easily. And even years after, characters are still haunted by what they’ve seen, the things they did and didn’t go, the people who died or went missing. This is the story of people and a nation trying to heal but also being unable to let go.
Although I was unfamiliar with this part of South Korean history, the introduction by Deborah Smith provides enough political background to frame the book. I also feel that although Human Acts is about a particular event, many of the themes and emotions experienced in it are universal, allowing readers with no previous knowledge to still enjoy and comprehend the book.
Human Acts is not an easy read and is much darker than The Vegetarian in my opinion. Beautifully translated by Deborah Smith, Human Acts still contains Kang’s dark and lyrical writing style, but the subject matter truly transforms it. Whereas The Vegetarian was more introspective, Human Acts is brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of trauma and state brutality. This is not a book for those who can’t handle descriptions of corpses, wounds, blood and death.
Although a dark and depressing read, Human Acts is such a beautiful book. I went in not knowing what to expect and came away transformed. This is not a book that is easily forgotten and is one to come back to later after the tears have stopped.