Book Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

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Human Acts by Han Kang / ★★★★★

Summary: In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed. The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre.

I grasped your hand and tugged you forward, toward the head of the column, while you muttered to yourself in blank incomprehension, our soldiers are shooting. They’re shooting at us. I pulled you toward them with all my strength, opening my throat to sing while you seemed on the point of tears. I sang along with the national anthem, my heart fit to burst. Before they sent that white-hot bullet driving into my side.

Genre: Historical Fiction

This book…wow. I finished it last night but I still feel teary-eyed from it. Human Acts surrounds the death of a fifteen year old boy, Dong-ho, who is killed in the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 in South Korea. The book is told in a series of different point of views from people who knew Dong-ho, or knew of him, and examines the human condition toward violence- if we are destined to be violent, or if we can escape it.

I’ve seen reviews on this book that describe it as cold and distant, but I did not feel that way at all. If anything, I felt that we were prying into the memories of people who would rather have not thought about the uprising and the violence that took place. We do not get a giant, comprehensive story- we get snapshots of a time that horrifically impacted the rest of people’s lives. As I was reading, I would think “how could these people go on with their lives?” and you realize that in some ways they do not. Han Kang does not shy away from the brutality that takes place in this book, but she does use the most graphic moments relatively sparingly, which made it all the more effective in my opinion.

While this book examines such a terrible event in Korean history, I felt that the pervading atmosphere of it was hauntingly quiet. I admit that I didn’t realize what a huge massacre the Gwangju Uprising was until I googled it after I finished the book- the characters share their stories so sparingly and intimately. They flip between silence on the subject and revealing the terror all at once.

Human Acts is brutal and raw and hard to read  at times, but also gives us a glimpse of hope despite all the bleakness and carnage. Each character offered something different, and something devastating. My heart hurts from reading this book, and it’s not one I’m going to forget. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’m definitely going to be reading more of Han Kang’s work.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

  1. I started “The Vegetarian” not so long ago, but it didn’t really hold my interest and I didn’t finish it. I might end up giving it another try in the future. I’ve never even heard of the Gwangju Uprising, but this book sounds interesting and I love the cover art. Is this a novel where you’re going to need to have a deep understanding of a lot of the political/social context to be able to figure out what’s going on and appreciate the story? :/

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    • I don’t think so! I’d also never heard of the Gwangju uprising before I read this, but there is a helpful introduction that prefaces the book that gives context. It was after I read the book that I did more research of it, because it made me interested. Human Acts offers a lot of different perspectives of the event, and also just the human capacity to commit violence. It’s a very interesting and painful read.

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  2. This was the first of her books I read and reviewed and I was hooked, I picked it up after reading about the author visiting London and talking to the audience about her inspiration for writing the novel. Once I read that, I had to know whether she achieved her aim in writing this book and I was blown away by it. Her Vegetarian book did go on to win the big prize, but in my opinion, this is the most outstanding book she has written, and about an aspect of history very few know about. Utterly brilliant.

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    • I agree!! I’d love to see what she had to say about it. I actually still have yet to read The Vegetarian, but it’s on my TBR, but I’ve heard some liked this one more.

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      • If you’re interested here’s a link to my review where I quote the questions she asked and also a link to the original post where I read about the Q & A she gave. It was from a blog post by Naomi at The Writes of Women about the Book/Author Discussion at Foyles Bookshop in London entitled ‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’

        Human Acts

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