book review: Human Acts by Han Kang


HUMAN ACTS by Han Kang
Hogarth Press, 2017

“Every time I recall the blood that flowed in the small hours of that night – literally flowed, gushing over the stairs in the pitch dark – it strikes me that those deaths did not belong solely to those who died. Rather, they were a substitute for the deaths of others. Many thousands of deaths, many thousands of hearts’ worth of blood.”

I am in awe of this book.

The Vegetarian, Kang’s first novel to be translated into English, was one of the best and most thought-provoking books I read last year. Among of the numerous themes explored in those pages, Kang fearlessly tackled the question of violence – whether it’s possible to live a life free of violence, or whether violence is an inherent part of the human experience.

In Human Acts, Kang takes this same theme and amplifies it, chronicling pages upon pages of brutality that resulted from the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. At the center of this novel, which operates almost as a series of vignettes told from the POV of different characters, is a young boy, Dong-ho, who dies in the massacre. Human Acts spans the next thirty years, following characters who had known Dong-ho, some personally, some peripherally. You don’t need to be an expert or even to know anything about Gwangju before starting this book – translator Deborah Smith gives a brief but succinct summary of the sociopolitical context surrounding the uprising in her Introduction (as well as a note on the difficulty in translating such an ambitious novel).

While I thought The Vegetarian was a very intense read, Human Acts was much more so, for me. Kang doesn’t sensationalize the events in these pages – the prose is succinct, sparing – and yet, this novel is anything but unfeeling. It’s understated, told without melodrama, but it’s all the more hard-hitting for that fact. Interestingly, the riots themselves aren’t the focus of this novel – it’s the quiet moments in between gunfire that Kang hones in on; the aftermath; the decay of rotting flesh of the bodies who have yet to be claimed. I felt a visceral ache while reading this book that I’ve only ever experienced with a few others in my life. After the chapter entitled “The Prisoner” I actually had to put the book down for a while – despite there being only 100 pages left, I wasn’t able to force myself to finish this in one sitting. This is a book that demands reflection.

Human Acts examines grief, guilt, brutality, injustice – all on a universal scale while still relating so inextricably to the events of Gwangju in 1980. It’s masterfully written and uncompromising, raw and harrowing and more thematically relevant than ever. It’s difficult to read at times due to the sensitive and graphic nature of the subject matter, but if you’re able to commit to it, it’s incredibly rewarding. Han Kang deftly explores the cruel side of humanity without burying the thread of hope that runs unbidden through this narrative. She’s created something that’s absolutely striking, both heartbreaking and beautiful.

15 thoughts on “book review: Human Acts by Han Kang

  1. Fantastic review; I loved hearing your thoughts. I didn’t connect with this as much as I’d hoped but admired it nonetheless and could tell she was a very talented writer. I’ve heard such good things about The Vegetarian as well that I feel I should probably give her another chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Callum! I definitely understand that… I think a lot of it had to do with the mood I was in when I picked this up, too.

      Depending on what held you back from loving Human Acts, you might prefer The Vegetarian. It’s much more introspective, and even though there are three different POVs it all centers on one woman in a more concrete way than how Human Acts centers on Dong-ho. So it’s more character driven, but also more allegorical than Human Acts, whose themes are much more apparent from the outset.

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      • I think mood played a part in my experience of the book too. I suspect it was possibly a case of being hurt by hype (as I picked it up amidst a lot of positive chat about it) or a case of the right book at the wrong time, since I kept feeling like I should be enjoying it more than I was.

        The themes and structure of The Vegetarian definitely intrigue me. I’ve heard that it has multiple perspectives and yet none of them are from the main character herself, meaning we only see her through others’ eyes, which I think is very clever.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I can’t wait for the day when I stop falling victim to book hype. This happens to me way too often – I’ll read a book and think ‘what, that was it??’ and it won’t even be the fault of the book at all, just my crazy high expectations.

        Yes! That’s one of the things I loved about The Vegetarian. It was so clever and thought-provoking. I couldn’t stop thinking about that book for weeks after I finished, as there’s so much to unravel.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been burned by it a few times too, and as you said, it’s usually a case of expectation vs reality more than any specific faults of the book itself.

        I’ve been considering trying The Vegetarian for a while but I think this conversation has convinced me to definitely give it a go one day. So, thanks! 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more on both these books. A year after reading The Vegetarian I still can’t get it out of my head and Human Acts left me stunned by how good it was. Great review (and not just because I agree 😀)

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    • Thanks, Emma! Agreed completely – I still find myself thinking about The Vegetarian and it’s been a year since I read it. I’m sure Human Acts is going to be the same way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Aahh YAY, I’m so glad you liked it, Rachel!!! This is one of my favorites from 2017 and an all-time favorite, basically. Amazing review, I agree with everything with you said. I also had to put it down several times because it’s definitely a very emotional and intense, even with such minimalist language. Han Kan is brilliant ❤

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    • Ahhhh I TOTALLY understand now why you are obsessed with it. It just completely floored me. I couldn’t believe that Han Kang was able to elicit such a huge emotional response from me by using such minimalist language, like you said. I’ve read a couple of reviews calling this book cold and unfeeling and saying it wasn’t a very emotional read, and I’m just like ?!?!?! The chapter from the point of view of Dong-ho’s mother literally brought me to tears.

      Liked by 1 person

      • YEEES omg I’m so happy, I was really excited to hear what you thought of it since you loved The Vegetarian too and this one’s playing with the same themes but in SUCH a different way. And people calling the book cold and unfeeling is just so???? Are you kidding me? The only explanation to this is they didn’t read the same book as I did. Or they totally skimmed it. Because Kang’s minimalist yet emotional language is absolutely incredible. I was literally crying at the chapter from Dong-ho’s mother’s PoV too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It was definitely one of the more intense reading experiences of my life. I was in absolute awe of what she was able to do here. I think the chapter ‘The Prisoner’ may have gotten to me the most, but it’s hard to say… each one of the chapters affected me in a different way. I really hope Deborah Smith keeps translating her books into English, I need more of her writing in my life.

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