Human Acts by Han Kang

Quite honestly I was a bit nervous going into my second Kang novel. The Vegetarian was the first and it was incredibly disturbing to say the least. I was still thinking about that story for a long time after I read it. Click here to read my review. I felt like I understood her to be a raw in your face kind of storyteller meaning that if she was going to paint a picture for you of death or abuse or any human sadness or atrocity, she was going to paint that picture in every color and even mix those colors to create new hues. Her words haunt you.  


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 can assure you that this book is not for the faint of heart. Kang tackles death at its core. There's blood dripping from nearly every other page and I only say that as a vivid warning to you before you read this. This story takes place in the city of Gwangju in South Korea during a student uprising in the 80s which in turn lead to a bloody massacre. Although the genre of this book is historical fiction, this is Kang's sort of recollection of what she heard about the 10 days of hell from family and friends growing up. In the prologue Kang shares her personal story of photos she saw of the dead and how those photos stayed embedded in her mind and made her question humanity.  This book sort of parallels one of my favorites, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. You can read my review here. They are not so much alike in context nor gory detail, but both authors have a personal connection to historical tragedy. I am still trying to figure out why I knew about neither one. Both Sepetys and Kang also wrote these stories from the POV of different characters and each character's story was riddled with heartbreak.  

 photo cred: cici ford

photo cred: cici ford

The character's perspective that made me more emotional than the others was the mother of a murdered boy. From her POV “After you died I could not hold a funeral, and so my life became a funeral.” Kang wrote the boy's mother in a way where the reader understands that she has a pain that cannot be healed. I was chatting with my good friend Helory @_wolfandmoon  {do give her a follow on Instagram} about how, historically, it is always the underdog, those deemed as second class citizens in society that rise up against tyranny.

 I cheered for the fearlessness of the women who worked in the factory. It continues to be perplexing that there are still protests, still grassroots mobilization; we are still fighting tooth and nail for simple things like fair treatment and wages and in the midst lives are lost. These women were educated and underpaid but talked fervently about what needed to happen as if their lives would not be in danger. 

 I thought it was so interesting how Kang wrote the narration of each character. For example, Dong-Ho. His story actually reads as if it's from the perspective of someone watching him; his soul. Only a brilliant writer can pull that off. He is surrounded by violence as he searches for the body of a friend who was shot in front of him. I could not fathom walking outside of my door and seeing makeshift graves and bodies everywhere; frantically searching for my family and friends in the carnage. I cannot mentally escape Kang's depiction of bodies butchered with bayonet's stacked atop one another, exposed bones, pools of blood and stinking, rotting flesh. 

As I watch and read the news, like most people, ponder about the "acts" of humanity. Can we save ourselves? Why it so easy to take a life? Why are we desensitized to death? Kang addresses how we think and feel about death through this story that spans 30 years. I think the fundamental question is an existential one. Are we humans being have a spiritual experience or are we spiritual beings having human experience and how does this tie in to the way we process death? Kang asks these questions through her characters.

"Looking at that boy's life, Jin-su said, what is this thing we call a soul? Just some non existent idea? Or something that might as well not exist? Or no, is it like a kind of glass? Glass is transparent, right!? And fragile. That's the fundamental nature of glass. And that's why objects that are made of glass have to be handled with care. After all, if they end up smashed or cracked or chipped, then they're good for nothing, right, you just have to chuck them away.

Before, we used to have a kind of glass that couldn't be broken. A truth so hard and clear it might as well have been made of glass. So when you think about it, it was only when we were shattered that we proved we had souls. That what we really were was humans made of glass." ~ Human Acts

Dong-Ho has a restless soul. The way I would describe it is he's trapped, in so many word, between heaven and hell. He doesn't realize that he is dead and trying to make sense of the ongoing violence. He is outside of himself and not understanding his circumstances. He is finally free when he senses the death of his friend and his sister. He needed to find those he was connected to. This story is distressing and sad. I had a feeling of vacancy as I was reading it. I loved nothing about this story obviously because of the narrative. It's impossible to "love" - murder, death, destruction, lonliness, poverty etc. Han Kang gives you all of this through the window of these suffering characters AS IS, but her writing is magnificent and she is a master storyteller. It was slow in some parts which stops me from rating it a five. 

Also I have been stalking Goodreads lately and someone shared an amazing interview with Han Kang that she did with The Writer Review. It's such a good interview so I thought I would share it with you here. 

Rating 4/5