By: Han Kang, Deborah Smith (Translator)
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.
Completion: This novel started out a bit rough but grew more interesting as it went on.
Writing/Style: The beginning took a big risk as it starts with the character Dong-ho in second person (i.e. using “You went to the store” instead of “I went to the store” or “He went to the store”). This was a bit jarring since this is not a style of writing most of us are used to. Thankfully, Dong-ho’s section is the only section that uses this style.
Characters: Sadly, as much as I liked the concept of all these people’s stories revolving around this one young boy who died, I don’t feel like it was executed to its fullest. Dong-ho in a lot of ways seems the most underdeveloped (partly due to the second person style but also due to the speed at which the story begins). We never get to see his day-to-day life and personality before the conflict happened so it is hard to emotionally invest in him and his decisions and his death (his death isn’t a spoiler because it’s in the summary).
Plot/Pacing: The plot jumps right into the action and tragedy of the conflict which I normally love; however, I’m largely ignorant of the South Korean situation this novel is based on and as such felt like the beginning of the novel lacked the exposition needed for us foreigners and I lagged behind the pacing a little, trying to piece together what was going on.
World-Building/Atmosphere: This novel is relentless with its portrayal of pain and suffering. This is definitely not a book to pick up lightly or for the faint of heart.
Sub-genres (Romance, Humor, Mystery, etc.): There isn’t really much in the way of sub-genres although there is some abstract, philosophical thought about souls and suffering placed in the narrative from time to time.
FINAL VERDICT: While this novel deals with an interesting subject matter, I would only really recommend it to people who already have a familiarity with the subject since there is little exposition and a jarring start.