Book Reviews

Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

Human Acts by Han Kang

Human Acts was deeply moving and disturbing in a way that only the best books can be. Let me elaborate, I do not mean in terms of the violence, but the ways in which this book gets under your skin, moves you so profoundly that your life can never be the same afterwards: disturbing in the good and the bad, the true ups and downs of life. Human Acts takes place in South Korea in 1980 during the time of a vicious student uprising and its multiple points of view style, as well as intersecting storylines, allow the readers to become fully immersed into the world of violence, grief, and suffering. The novel narrates the whole range of characters from the living to the dead, the victims to the mourners, and the past to the future. Their stories touch everyone and transcend distance and time.

Too much to process—what you saw happen to that hand, that back, that leg. A human being (31)

The introduction provides the readers with a frame of mind with which to approach the novel, and is incredibly helpful. It elevates the novel and allows the reader a chance to become acclimated, as best they can, with what is to come. Providing glimpses of the story, as well as some of the themes, enriches the experience of the reading. Smith’s ending line, ‘her novel is both a personal and political response to these recent developments, and a reminder of the human acts of which we are all capable, the brutal and the tender, the base and the sublime’ (Smith, 11) is a true testament to the soul of this story and the art of her translation.

Isn’t he your friend? Isn’t he a human being? (43)

What constantly stunned me, even though it was the same throughout the novel, was the exquisite beauty of the writing. This work encompasses the beauty of composition, the lyrical possibilities of words, and the immense power that such combinations of letters can have. There are numerous passages highlighted because of the sheer gorgeousness of the sentences, of the way that they make you feel, without even taking the subject matter into consideration. It is a true work of poetic brilliance. Yet at the heart lies a poignant story about the suffering that takes place at human hands, and at the same time, the way that we struggle to come to terms with these traumas. At some moments it seems more like a biography, a work of magical realism, and a documentary.

How is it, she wonders, that a face can so effectively conceal what lays behind it? How is it not indelibly marked by such callousness, brutality, murderousness?  (84)

I could write paragraphs about this book from praise of its writing, to reflections on its dealings with issues such as the human condition, suffering, and revolution. In my opinion, the only thing that may be a challenge is the violence, but I did not feel it was over the top and could have been much more explicit. However, and what I think is a testament and its main point, that is all part of this experience.

Reading this novel is an experience of confronting the traumas and the cringe worthy moments. It is about looking deep into our eyes in the mirror as we are brought to our knees and deeply disturbed. Through this novel we catch a brief glimpse of the elusive nature of humanity and its incredible ability to cause pain and capacity for dealing with this disturbance, all while illustrating the reverse: the incredible love and motivation for justice in the face of grief and violence.

If you enjoy books that are moving, books about South Korea, or want to read a beautiful novel, I woudl encourage you to check out this book! You can buy it here. Comment below and tell me what your favorite story based on a political movement is!


Disclaimer: I received this book from First to Read in exchange for an honest review

Book cover image from here.


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4 thoughts on “Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

  1. Wonderful review 🙂 I just finished reading Human Acts myself, and I agree with everything you said! It’s definitely going to stay with me for a while, and Kang’s writing is just something else.

    Have you read her other noted book, The Vegetarian? I haven’t yet but I’m definitely going to give it a try now!

    1. Yes I really liked it. I just got the vegetarian for Christmas so I’ll be reading that soon!! It’s turned be into a fan 🙂

  2. This is such a beautifully written review.
    Human Acts is one of those books that I will probably talk about and link to current events for a long time. While I was reading, I couldn’t help making the comparison – Americans waving placards and protesting the current administration, Not My President, etc. and having the freedom to protest peacefully, while the students in Gwangju were killed for the same acts.
    There is a lot to be thankful for that we live in this society in this time but it strikes such a contrast to the events in the novel.

    1. Yes, the connection to current events that you bring up is an excellent connection. How much difference it makes. The book has so many different aspects, things worth thinking about, that I would love to read it again.

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