Reviews for Human Acts

by Han Kang

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The brutal murder of a 15-year-old boy during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising becomes the connective tissue between the isolated characters of this emotionally harrowing novel.In May 1980, student demonstrations ignited a popular uprising in the South Korean city of Gwangju. The police and military responded with ruthless violence, and Han (The Vegetarian, 2015) begins her novel in the middle of a disorienting atmosphere of human-inflicted horror. While searching for a friend, a young boy named Dong-ho joins a team of volunteers who look after the bodies of demonstrators who were killed. He keeps a ledger with details on each corpse, pins a number to its chest, and keeps candles lit beside the ones with no family to grieve beside them. The details of this world seep off the page in a series of sickening but precisely composed images. Hans evocation of savagery and grief is shockingly sensory and visceral but never approximate or unrestrained. Each characters voice seems to ring in its own space, and though they are all connected by Dong-hos experiences in Gwangju, they exist in an uncanny isolation. The novel is divided into seven parts: six acts that each focus on a different character and an epilogue that pulls in the author herself. The parts shift in time from 1980 to 2013 and in point of view, making the reader intimate or complicit to different degrees with the voice of a dead person, a survivor of torture, a mother suffering from regret and memory. Han explores the sprawling trauma of political brutality with impressive nuance and the piercing emotional truth that comes with masterful fiction. In her epilogue she writes, Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Her novel is likely to provoke an echo of that moment in its readers. A fiercely written, deeply upsetting, and beautifully human novel. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

*Starred Review* I fight alone every day. I fight with the hell that I survived. I fight with the fact of my own humanity. These words epitomize the collection of interconnected stories that comprise Kang's second novel to be translated into English, following The Vegetarian (2016). It begins in 1980 with Dong-Ho, a middle-school student in search of his friend's corpse in Gwangju, South Korea. His involvement with the suppressed student uprising connects him with the other characters who seek to make sense of their experiences in the aftermath. An editor, a student, a prisoner, a spirit, and a mother: all are interconnected by their desire for a reformed government and the horrific traumas they carry with them. Kang is an incredible storyteller who raises questions about the purpose of humanity and the constant tension between good and evil through the heartbreaking experiences of her characters. Her poetic language shifts fluidly from different points of view, while her fearless use of raw, austere diction emulates the harsh conflicts and emotions raging throughout the plot. This jarring portrayal of the Gwangju demonstrations will keep readers gripped until the end.--Park, Emily Copyright 2016 Booklist

Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

After winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, Han has written a harrowing second novel that traces the long-term reverberations from South Korea's 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which government troops killed anywhere between 200 and 2,000 civilians in the chaos following the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. The story opens in that fateful year with Dong-ho, a 15-year-old boy searching for his friend Jeong-Dae while tending to the bodies of protestors in the municipal gymnasium, helping family members identify and claim them. But Dong-ho is soon another casualty in the violence, and the novel, structured in linked stories, traverses the subsequent years to document the aftermath of Dong-ho's death. The story is told in a combination of first-, second-, and third-person narration by those who knew Dong-ho, and it includes Jeong-Dae's life after death, a book editor's fight against censorship, a prisoner's recollection of his captivity and torture, a former factory worker whose memories of the violence are brought up when an author needs her as a "witness," and Dong-ho's mother, remembering her son 30 years after his death. In the final chapter, Han herself reveals her connection to Dong-ho. Han's novel is an attempt to verbalize something unspeakable, and her characters often find themselves adrift decades after the event. But she humanizes the terrible violence by focusing on the more mundane aspects: tending and transporting bodies, or attempting to work an ordinary job years later. And by placing the reader in the wake of Dong-ho's memory, preserved by his family and friends, Han has given a voice to those who were lost in the Gwangju Uprising. (Jan.) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

With Han's The Vegetarian awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, her follow-up will garner extra scrutiny. Bottom line? This new work, again seamlessly translated by Smith, who also provides an indispensable contextual introduction, is even more stupendous. Han drops readers into a mass of deteriorating corpses, the victims of South Korea's 1980 Gwangju Uprising, when student-led demonstrations came to a gruesome end. A 15-year-old boy, searching for his missing friend, enters a school where bodies are being collected and doesn't leave alive. In the five chapters that follow, using Rashomon-like shifts in perspective, Han bears witness to what happened in that death-filled building and the hellish aftermath over decades for those who got out. Han, a Gwangju native, adds her own urgent history in the epilog, erasing any remotely comforting distance the word novel might have provided. VERDICT Lest readers think these events are specific to this place, this time, these people, the author demonstrates how inhumane human acts are "imprinted in our genetic code," citing massacres in Nanjing, Bosnia, and "all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World." The hope of someday conquering that brutal cycle is why every library should acquire this title. [See Prepub Alert, 7/11/16.]-Terry Hong, Smithsonian -BookDragon, Washington, DC Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.