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.

Book Review Round-Up: Always Running, The Vegetarian, and Sister Of My Heart

I’ve read quite a few books recently, and thought I’d do some shorter reviews on a few of them!

always-running-coverBook #1: Always Running by Luis J. Rodriguez

Published October 2005 (originally published 1993) by Touchstone|288 pages

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

Series: None

Genre: Adult Non-Fiction, Memoir

What It’s About: The award-winning and bestselling classic memoir about a young Chicano gang member surviving the dangerous streets of East Los Angeles, now featuring a new introduction by the author.

Winner of the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, hailed as a New York Times notable book, and read by hundreds of thousands, Always Running is the searing true story of one man’s life in a Chicano gang—and his heroic struggle to free himself from its grip.

By age twelve, Luis Rodriguez was a veteran of East Los Angeles gang warfare. Lured by a seemingly invincible gang culture, he witnessed countless shootings, beatings, and arrests and then watched with increasing fear as gang life claimed friends and family members. Before long, Rodriguez saw a way out of the barrio through education and the power of words and successfully broke free from years of violence and desperation.

Achieving success as an award-winning poet, he was sure the streets would haunt him no more—until his young son joined a gang. Rodriguez fought for his child by telling his own story in Always Running, a vivid memoir that explores the motivations of gang life and cautions against the death and destruction that inevitably claim its participants.

At times heartbreakingly sad and brutal, Always Running is ultimately an uplifting true story, filled with hope, insight, and a hard-earned lesson for the next generation.

What I Thought: I really liked Always Running!  It’s very honest, and I’m actually really glad I read it.  It’s a very raw account of his life in east L.A. and his life on the streets, and how he broke free from that life.

It was hard to read, and I was especially saddened by how people were placed in certain classes based on their race, and yet, it wasn’t that surprising, especially given the time.  It’s as much his life story as it is the history of the factors that led to the rise in gangs.  His parents came to the U.S. from Mexico in search of a better life, and it seems like they tried to give him (and his siblings) a good life.

I liked the snapshots we got of his life, but at the same time, it was a little hard to follow because as far as timeline went, he did jump around a little bit.  I also had a bit of a hard time keeping track of who was who, but overall, it’s still worth reading.  You do a clear picture of why he joined a club- for protection, because it was the only way to stay safe.

My Rating: 4 stars.  It’s very vivid, and it’s still very relevant to current events.

the-vegetarian-coverBook #2: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Translated by Deborah Smith

Published February 2016 (originally published 2007) by Hogarth|192 pages

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

Series: None

Genre: Adult Fiction

What It’s About: Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, The Vegetarian is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

What I Thought: I’m not sure what to think about The Vegetarian.  It’s a very weird book, but in a good way.  It is interesting that she gave up meat because of a dream, and that dreams played a big role in becoming more plant-like. In a way, it seemed like becoming vegetarian was Yeong-hye’s way of gaining some sort of control over her life.  It also goes in a direction that I did not see coming, and it’s interesting that you see it through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister.  Part of me wishes that we saw Yeong-hye narrate even a small portion of the book, but at the same time, I liked seeing her through the eyes of the people around her.

One thing I wondered was how people in South Korea view vegetarians, and if it’s something that’s very specific to her family.  I honestly assumed her family would be okay with it, and I’m not sure where that assumption came from. But something about how they reacted rang true.

My Rating: 4 stars.  I did like the first two parts, which focused on her marriage and being a muse for her brother-in-law, but I wasn’t as interested in the last part, which focused on her sister.  It’s still worth reading.

sister-of-my-heart-coverBook #3: Sister Of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Published January 1999 by Doubleday|336 pages

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

Series: Anju & Sudha #1

Genre: Adult Fiction

Where I Got It: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni made an indelible impression on the literary world with her first novel, The Mistress of Spices, a magical tale of love and herbs. Sister of My Heart is less reliant on enchantment but no less enchanting as it tells the tale of two cousins born on the same day, their premature births brought on by a mysterious occurrence that claims the lives of both their fathers. Sudha is beautiful, Anju is not; yet the girls love each other as sisters, the bond between them so strong it seems nothing can break it. When both are pushed into arranged marriages, however, each discovers a devastating secret that changes their relationship forever.

Sister of My Heart spans many years and zigzags between India and America as the cousins first grow apart and then eventually reunite. Divakaruni invests this domestic drama with poetry as she traces her heroines’ lives from infancy to motherhood, but it is Sudha and Anju who give the story its backbone. Anju might speak for both when she says, “In spite of all my insecurities, in spite of the oceans that’ll be between us soon and the men that are between us already, I can never stop loving Sudha. It’s my habit, and it’s my fate.” Book lovers may well discover that reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is habit-forming as well. –Margaret Prior

What I Thought: I liked Sister Of My Heart.  I really liked the bond that Sudha and Anju had, and that they are more sisters than cousins.  There were times where their bond was so strong I honestly forgot they were cousins, and not sisters.

They definitely learned things that will completely change their relationship, and it’s hard to tell which secret will change their relationship more.  I have the feeling that both secrets will come out at some point.  I didn’t realize that this was the first book in a series, and at the end of the book, I was slightly disappointed that there was not more resolution.  Once I realized that it was part of a series, the ending made more sense.  It makes me wonder what will happen next for Sudha and Anju.

I will say that I found the arranged marriages to be interesting, but also hard to imagine.  Even though it’s something I know exists, it’s hard to wrap my head around it, and this book was a really good glimpse into what is one of many reasons why there are arranged marriages.  It’s also a really good look at families and the family dynamic in a different part of the world, and how different things are for people in other parts of the world.

My Rating: 3 stars.  I liked it, and I may continue the series, but not anytime soon.  I did love the relationship between Sudha and Anju and how much it changed.