Book Review: Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

Book: Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

Published January 2017 by Hogarth Press|218 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the hardcover from the library

Series: None

Genre: Adult Literary Fiction

From the internationally bestselling author of The Vegetarian, a rare and astonishing (The Observer) portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice.

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. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho’s own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.

An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.

I first heard about Human Acts from my friend Mollie, and since I liked The Vegetarian, I figured I’d pick up this book.

I’m actually going to do something a little different for this novel: each chapter is told from a different perspective, so I’m doing a chapter-by-chapter review, and then I’ll sum up my feelings about the book.

The Intro By The Translator:

I really liked the intro, since it talked about the real life event that inspired the book.  I especially liked that the author had a personal connection to the event we see in the book, and it made me feeling the author had a personal investment in seeing the story told.

Chapter One, The Boy, 1980:

This chapter is told in second person, and that’s really different, since novels are usually told in first person or third person.  I have such mixed feelings about it: I felt like we were really, truly seeing things first hand, and you really experience the horror of what happened.  At the same time, it was really off-putting, and I was really close to putting it down and not finishing it at all because of it.  You’re there, experiencing everything the boy is experiencing, but at the same time, I felt so distant and disconnected from everything.  I think, in a way, it made me feel like I was being told what happened, even though you’re experiencing everything as though it’s happening to you.  It is a strong start to the book, and I cannot say enough that this chapter, as horrifying and off-putting as it was, makes me want to learn more about what really happened.

Chapter Two, The Boy’s Friend, 1980:

I was really confused reading this chapter at first, because I didn’t realize it was a different narrator.  It took a couple of reads to realize it was a different person narrating.  This chapter is told in first person, and it felt very personal. It’s just as horrifying as the first chapter, but in a very different way.  It’s also a very powerful chapter, because you really see how it rippled out to so many different people.  And through the boy’s friend, you really see a different side of it.

Chapter Three, The Editor, 1985:

I had a lot of trouble understanding why we were seeing things from the editor’s point of view.  Third person was interesting, and it somehow made the chapter feel neutral.  It didn’t have the same horror that the first two chapters did, and it didn’t have the same effect those chapters did.  Looking back, this chapter was the beginning of me starting to lose a lot of interesting in the book, and how much this event changed things. Thinking about it now, I suppose the editor’s chapter is supposed to show how things are very much censored? And the point of forgetting the slaps…I’m not sure what the point of it is.  I am so fuzzy about what it had to do with the student uprising, because it seemed like it was the least connected to it.

Chapter Four, The Prisoner, 1990:

At first, I was curious about why he was in prison, because it wasn’t clear to me.  At least at first.  It did offer a different perspective on the student uprising, and what happened after.  Especially for those who lived through the uprising.  It really stayed with him, and you really see how it haunts him.  It’s not one of my favorite chapters, but it’s up there with the first two chapters.

Chapter 5, The Factory Girl, 2002:

So, we’re back to 2nd person for this chapter.  It felt very distant in the way the first chapter did.  Partially because we’re so far removed from the original uprising, but also because of how this chapter is told.  I was pretty bored reading this chapter, and it jumped around a lot in terms of time.  It really muddled her story, and even though, like the previous chapter, was a different perspective on what happened, I just didn’t care.

Chapter 6, The Boy’s Mother, 2010: 

This chapter felt very personal, like the chapters we saw with the first two chapters.  And since it focuses on the boy’s mom, it felt even more personal.  I liked seeing how little she knows of some of the people she knows, and also how she dealt with the loss of her son.  It really brought it back to the horror of the student uprising.  It was hard chapter to get through- at this point, I lost a lot of the interesting I had at the beginning, and I just wanted to get through it.

Epilogue, The Writer, 2013:

I don’t have a lot to say about this chapter.  You really see the effect the student uprising had decades later, and on so many different people.  By this point, you were so far removed from it, and yet, it still lingers haunts people.

Overall Thoughts:

I thought the chapters were really uneven.  It started off so strong and horrifying, and the passage of time, as well as some of the narrators, lessened it for me.  The chapters told in 2nd person were the hardest to get through, and I didn’t like the choose-your-own-adventure feel they had.  I definitely lost interest the further you got from the uprising, and I definitely didn’t like it as much as the The Vegetarian.

2 stars.  I had to read each chapter 2 or 3 times to get a sense of what was going on, and I could only handle a chapter at a time.

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