CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: 5/5 PLOT AND NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE: 4.8/5 LANGUAGE AND WRITING STYLE: 5/5 HISTORICAL ELEMENT INCLUDED: 4.5/5 OVERALL: 4.5/5 Themes: Historical Fiction, Political Fiction
“After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral,– Han Kang, Human Acts
So these eyes that once beheld you became a shrine.
These ears that once heard your voice became a shrine.
These lungs that once inhaled your breath became a shrine.”
I have always been someone who much prefers reading about history than love stories. So, when I came across this book, I was eager to get my hands on it. Coincidentally, I also won a giveaway that awarded me Han Kang’s “Human Acts” as the winning prize.
My first introduction to Han Kang’s work was through “The Vegetarian.” The book deeply held my attention and prompted profound thinking. By the end, I had already fallen in love with it. Hence, you can understand the expectations and interests I associate with my second book from this author.
“Human Acts” is a South Korean novel that follows the democratization uprising of May 18, 1980, in Gwangju, Korea, and the myriad consequences that arise from it.
We follow the lives of the people affected by this uprising and how deeply they were scarred throughout their life. This unfolds through interconnecting chapters, providing glimpses into the lives these people lead after facing the horrors of the uprising.
We follow Dong Ho’s mother after his death, and the grief that follows her is immense. There are also accounts from prisoners and the tortures they had to endure, a publisher facing censorship repeatedly, a lost soul flying and searching, and many more.
This novel is heart-breaking, and if you are someone who is interested in historical fiction and is comfortable with a lot of intensifying and gut-wrenching scenes, then you must read this book.
While I expected “Human Acts” to have a lot of deaths, I did not expect to be ambushed by it in the first few pages itself. I was not prepared to read about corpses and eighty-three coffins within my first few minutes with the book.
This comes as a huge statement preparing me for what I am going to read next and also piquing my interest to another level. I wanted to know more. What caused the deaths of the people? It sounds scary to even provoke the question within the first few pages.
This book starts with no background check on anything that is happening, but readers have to take the story as it goes because everything eventually makes sense with each page that is being turned. There is also a jump in the timeline, but it does not happen the way it usually happens in other novels.
Here, it follows the memories of the individuals as they move in and out of the past and into the present.
The one thing that caught me off guard is how casually the idea of “dead bodies” is being approached. It is an everyday happening that is no surprise anymore, and the number of dead bodies or corpses lying around is treated as just familiar matters of day-to-day mundane life.
Imagine a world where there are no more rooms left in morgues. Can you? I cannot even begin to fathom it.
While the novel shows us how brutal the present world is and how much the life of a person is being made difficult because of everything that is happening around them, the author also shows us what happens after a person dies. Is there a soul? If yes, does it have a face?
There is so much exploration between living and life after death that even the readers are moving in and out of dying, following the state of mind of the narrative technique of the novel.
Reading this novel makes me feel like I am encroaching into the hidden memories of the characters, memories that they would rather leave untouched, but here I am prying them open with my bare hands just to quench my curiosity.
Furthermore, this novel gives you a sense of it being formal and not something that you pick up just because you wanted to read something. “Human Acts” requires a lot more because the content shared deals with a lot more than what your usual fiction offers.
The contents of this book will seep into you and make you question just how these people were able to survive. The strength and endurance that they have within them is out of this world.
Not only that, but the author also explored how vile and cruel human nature can become when they are put under certain pressure. We read about a time when basic rights are violated, and the means of torture are driven to the worst possible scenario.
How can a human being do that to another human being? The trauma that people face during the war can affect the life they later have to live, after surviving difficulties that seem impossible for a human being to go through.
It is this very trauma that will eventually shape their adult lives. Unresolved trauma causes so much harm because the longer it stays in the mind of someone, the deeper its roots take hold.
Moreover, the author also showed us how factory girls are being treated in such uprisings. The innocence that they once possessed is being tainted and polluted. They had nothing except the purity that is within them, which is the only thing that they can count on, and yet, even that accounts for nothing. They became voiceless. No, they were beaten and slammed, and their voice was taken from them forcefully.
The shame of it all. Now, these women only have pain in their life and nothing else. I, a mute spectator, will never understand how a fellow human being can exploit another human’s body to such an extent that even the owner of the said body started to despise herself and reject any sort of warmth and affection that goes her way just because of the trauma injected on her.
It hurts and pains us as readers to read such things, knowing we cannot do anything but only empathize with the character.
Regarding the flow of the novel, at times I find it a bit too difficult to follow as it skips from one memory to another before dropping back to the present time, but the entirety of it makes so much sense towards its ending. The entire plot narrative has been written in such a way that if we do not pay enough attention to every detail, we might just miss out on the bigger picture because it is the little moments in between the pages of the book that make up the whole of it.
“Human Acts” is a book that I will forever hold close to my heart, coming back to the events time and again because this is not the kind of book that is forgettable. If anything, it stays and scars.
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