Human Acts by Han Kang
The plot is centered around the democratic uprising in Gwangju, South Korea (the author’s hometown) in 1980. Protesting against the authoritarian South Korean government, civilians and military clashed in the small town in May of 1980, and several hundred people were killed (official estimates on the death toll vary). In the midst if this, Han Kang focuses on one boy, Dong ho, a fifteen year old student caught up in the middle of the violence.
Through the chapters, we hear from many people, all who have lost something to this massacre. As the story moves forward in time, we see how the living and the dead are still haunted by what took place in the square at Gwangju, and how the scars of the souls involved (both the human souls and the soul of South Korea itself) never really heal completely.
The book is wrenching. The stark horror of the story is made all the more immediate by the familiarity of the author with the subject matter. Han Kang grew up in Gwangju, and while she wasn’t living there when the massacre took place, friends, family, and neighbors were drawn into the conflict. Many of the chapters in this book were drawn from survivors’ accounts written up after the fact.
This book is a difficult read, more due to the subject matter than the language (Deborah Smith did a wonderful job translating). But I would recommend this book to just about everyone. With all the unrest in the world today, sometimes we need to be reminded that such things have happened in the past, and so we must be doubly vigilant to prevent them from occurring in the future.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Human Acts will be available for purchase on January 17th, 2017.