Human Acts

Han Kang, trans. from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Random/Hogarth, $21 (224p) ISBN 978-1-101-90672-9
After winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, Han has written a harrowing second novel that traces the long-term reverberations from South Korea’s 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which government troops killed anywhere between 200 and 2,000 civilians in the chaos following the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. The story opens in that fateful year with Dong-ho, a 15-year-old boy searching for his friend Jeong-Dae while tending to the bodies of protestors in the municipal gymnasium, helping family members identify and claim them. But Dong-ho is soon another casualty in the violence, and the novel, structured in linked stories, traverses the subsequent years to document the aftermath of Dong-ho’s death. The story is told in a combination of first-, second-, and third-person narration by those who knew Dong-ho, and it includes Jeong-Dae’s life after death, a book editor’s fight against censorship, a prisoner’s recollection of his captivity and torture, a former factory worker whose memories of the violence are brought up when an author needs her as a “witness,” and Dong-ho’s mother, remembering her son 30 years after his death. In the final chapter, Han herself reveals her connection to Dong-ho. Han’s novel is an attempt to verbalize something unspeakable, and her characters often find themselves adrift decades after the event. But she humanizes the terrible violence by focusing on the more mundane aspects: tending and transporting bodies, or attempting to work an ordinary job years later. And by placing the reader in the wake of Dong-ho’s memory, preserved by his family and friends, Han has given a voice to those who were lost in the Gwangju Uprising. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 07/04/2016
Release date: 01/17/2017
Genre: Fiction
Paperback - 240 pages - 978-1-101-90674-3
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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