On May 18, 1980, university students in Gwangju, South Korea began a protest against the new Chun Doo-hwan government, accusing the leader of having staged a coup, and registering their disapproval of his tactics. In response, the government declared Martial Law and soldiers opened fire on crowds of students as well as on the civilians who came out in protest of the initial violence. Scores of people were killed although the actual number has been disputed ever since the event, with the rumored death toll estimated to be over 600.
What drives a government to turn against its own people? What makes young people – students seeking an education, civilians looking to make a way for their families and themselves – willing to exchange their lives for a cause? What arouses bystanders to ignore their own selves and take on the dreadful task of assisting bereaved families with identifying the bodies of their loved ones? And what becomes of the victims – those forever lost and those they left behind? Are we still behaving like humans when we commit barbaric acts against each other and if not humans, what then?
Human Acts is a historical fictional account of said Gwangju uprising. The novel is written by Han Kang, the author who brought us last year’s hugely acclaimed The Vegetarian, and in this book, again, she tackles difficult subject matter with such imagery that if you’re not careful, you might lose your lunch. Human Acts is translated from Korean by Deborah Smith but little of the meaning or imagery gets lost in translation as Smith is careful to point out in the introduction, even showing how she paid homage to Kang’s use of indigenous language. Throughout the story, Kang’s feeling about the event comes through, evoking sensory responses as well as she calls on emotion and provokes thought. In the novel, she switches back and forth between narrators and accounts, telling several stories but tracing one central theme of humanity – man in response to his environment.
I gave this book a
3.5 star rating because: (see my update at the end of the post)
- I found the cover very attractive and the title engaging and both helped spark my interest in the story
- I thought Kang’s use of imagery was very engaging and sometimes I reread a sentence because I wanted to experience the sensation of having read those words a second time
- I thought the melding of characters into a single story about the different aspects of the uprising was very well crafted
- I took a half-star off because the names, and thus the characters, were a little hard to follow
- I took a full star away because I didn’t connect with the animism perspective that the author seems to have which made some parts of the book difficult to read
Overall, I recommend the book for voracious readers of literary or historical fiction. Human Acts informed me about an event that I might not otherwise have ever known about and inspired me to do some research. Readers who like to learn something even from their fiction and who enjoy being challenged by made-up characters, will likely enjoy this book.
Other book details:
Disclaimer: I received a free electronic galley of this book from Blogging For Books in order to write this review, but I acquired and read a hardcover copy instead.
I have since reread Human Acts, this time armed with a notebook and posits so I could make notes. This time, I understand the historical event the author is reporting on and a little more about the Korean culture and I have better appreciation for the story itself and once I took those biases away and allowed the author to take me on a journey, I LOVED the book. So I’ve changed my rating to full 5 stars! I will post another review to convey my new feelings about Kang’s writing.