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Human Acts: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 17, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of January 2017: Han Kang, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Vegetarian, is back with a new novel that is as poetic as it is disturbing, profound as it is intimate, brave as it is brilliant. This is a story seeped in South Korean history but rooted in the stronghold of humanity. In Human Acts, Kang recounts a violent uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980 and begins unapologetically with the bodies – the bodies piled unclaimed and rotting of the students that were murdered. Dong-ho, a young teenager looks for his friend amidst the rubble, clinging to the proximity of his friend’s last breath. Refusing to go home, Dong-ho is murdered. From there, Kang’s epic novel blooms outward, telling the stories of friends, family, prisoners, editors that are haunted, ruined and ravaged by the atrocities of that day. Kang is uncompromisingly raw in her portrayal of the violence, censorship and political corruption that pervades the lives of these South Koreans. She unfurls how trauma extends across generations, how forgetting is impossible and how human touch can still incite hope: “it felt as they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again.” Human Acts is a triumph of sustained force and poetry. --Al Woodworth, The Amazon Book Review
"Compulsively readable, universally relevant and deeply resonant... It lacerates, it haunts, it dreams, it mourns... ‘Human Acts’ is, in equal parts, beautiful and urgent."—New York Times Book Review
”Human Acts is unique in the intensity and scale of this brutality… [T[he novel details a bloody history that was deliberately forgotten and is only now being recovered.”—The Nation
"[Han Kang's] new novel, Human Acts, showcases the same talent for writing about corporeal horrors, this time in the context of the 1980 Gwangju uprising.”—TIME Magazine
“Han Kang’s Human Acts speak the unspeakable.” —Vanity Fair
“The long wake of the killings plays out across the testimonies of survivors as well as the dead, in scenarios both gorily real and beautifully surreal.”—Vulture
"Human Acts is stunning. Book reviews evaluate how well a book does what it sets out to do, and so we sometimes write nice things about books that perfectly fulfill trivial aims. Otherwise, we'd always be complaining that romance novels or political thrillers fail to justify the ways of God to men. But Han Kang has an ambition as large as Milton's struggle with God: She wants to reconcile the ways of humanity to itself.”—NPR.org
“Engrossing… The result is torturously compelling, a relentless portrait of death and agony that never lets you look away. Han’s prose—as translated by Deborah Smith—is both spare and dreamy, full of haunting images and echoing language. She mesmerizes, drawing you into the horrors of Gwangju; questioning humanity, implicating everyone… Unnerving and painfully immediate.”—Los Angeles Times
“Revelatory … nothing short of breathtaking… In the end, what Han has re-created is not just an extraordinary record of human suffering during one particularly contentious period in Korean history, but also a written testament to our willingness to risk discomfort, capture, even death in order to fight for a cause or help others in times of need.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“But where Kang excels is in her unflinching, unsentimental descriptions of death. I am hard pressed to think of another novel that deals so vividly and convincingly with the stages of physical decay. Kang’s prose does not make for easy reading, but there is something admirable about this clear-eyed rendering of the end of life.”—Boston Globe
“Absorbing… Han uses her talents as a storyteller of subtlety and power to bring this struggle out of the middle distance of ‘history’ and into the intimate space of the irreplaceable human individual.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Kang explores the sprawling trauma of political brutality with impressive nuance and the piercing emotional truth that comes with masterful fiction... a fiercely written, deeply upsetting, and beautifully human novel.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Kang is an incredible storyteller who raises questions about the purpose of humanity and the constant tension between good and evil through the heartbreaking experiences of her characters. Her poetic language shifts fluidly from different points of view, while her fearless use of raw, austere diction emulates the harsh conflicts and emotions raging throughout the plot. This jarring portrayal of the Gwangju demonstrations will keep readers gripped until the end.”—Booklist (starred)
“With Han Kang’s The Vegetarian awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, her follow-up will garner extra scrutiny. Bottom line? This new work, again seamlessly translated by Deborah Smith, who also provides an indispensable contextual introduction, is even more stupendous.”—Library Journal (starred)
"Pristine, expertly paced, and gut-wrenching… Human Acts grapples with the fallout of a massacre and questions what humans are willing to die for and in turn what they must live through. Kang approaches these difficult and inexorable queries with originality and fearlessness, making Human Acts a must-read for 2017."—Chicago Review of Books
“Though her subject matter is terrifying, her prose is too beautiful, her images too perfectly crystallized to wince and turn away from them… ‘Human Acts’ is a slim novel weighted with philosophical and spiritual inquiry, but if offers no consolations. Rather, it grapples with who we are, what we are able to endure, and what we inflict upon other people…”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Kang interconnects the chapters in her novel to focus on characters who are irreparably affected by the historic Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in May 1980, in which government troops killed an estimated 600 protesters. The Guardian calls it ‘an act of unflinching witness.’”—Sacramento Bee
“Reading about human acts like these can be excruciating. But true to the urgency conveyed through its frequent use of second-person narration, Han’s book is also filled with human acts involving profiles in courage that inspire hope… In a novel whose heroes include editors, actors and writers—each battling to remember while censors try to forget—Han’s own book embodies the miracle this passage describes.”—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Following The Vegetarian, one of the most stunning novels of 2016, Human Acts is yet another belatedly translated work from South Korean writer Han Kang. Centering on the killing of a young boy during a student uprising, the novel follows the rippling effects of the tragedy.”—Huffington Post
“[E]xquisitely crafted.”—O, the Oprah Magazine
“After dazzling us with The Vegetarian, which won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, Han Kang is dropping another amazing read. Set in South Korea in 1980, in the wake of a student protest turned horrifically violent, the book follows a cast of characters as they deal with the harrowing consequences of that day.”—Bustle
"...Inventive, intense and provocative...a work of considerable bravery...'Human Acts' is a profound act of protest in itself."—Newsday
“Kang’s forthcoming Human Acts focuses on the 1980 Korean Gwangju Uprising, when Gwangju locals took up arms in retaliation for the massacre of university students who were protesting. Within Kang tries to unknot ‘two unsolvable riddles’ — the intermingling of two innately human yet disparate tendencies, the capacity for cruelty alongside that for selflessness and dignity.” —The Millions
“This novel is a thoughtful and humane answer to difficult questions and a moving tribute to victims of the atrocity.”—BookPage
“South Korean novelist Han first gained attention stateside with The Vegetarian, her first novel to be translated into English, last year. This follow-up novel follows a group of people who are affected both directly and indirectly by the death of a young boy during a violent student protest in South Korea.”—Men’s Journal (online)
“Han Kang made a big splash last year with The Vegetarian. Using several points of view to delve into the death of one adolescent boy during the Gwangju Uprising, Human Acts will surely continue Kang’s praise among critics and readers… Human Acts ruthlessly examines what people are capable of doing to one another, but also considers how the value of one life can affect many.”—Book Riot
“Han Kang’s first novel to appear in English, The Vegetarian, was one of the most jarring works of fiction we’ve read in a while. Human Acts takes a broader view of humanity, focusing on a host of reactions to the death of a young man in a political action in South Korea. We’re looking forward to experiencing her prose in a new context with this novel.”—Vol. 1 Brooklyn
"Human Acts is elegantly written, unflinchingly brutal and absolutely real. It is not so much a novel as it is a profound act of connection; it is beyond powerful. Han Kang is what most writers spend their lives trying to be: a fearless, unsentimental teller of human truths."—Lisa McInerney, Baileys Women's Prize-winning author of The Glorious Heresies
“This is a book that could easily founder under the weight of its subject matter. Neither inviting nor shying away from modern-day parallels, Han neatly unpacks the social and political catalysts behind the massacre and maps its lengthy, toxic fallout. But what is remarkable is how she accomplishes this while still making it a novel of blood and bone. The characters frequently address themselves to an unnamed “You”… This sense of dislocation is most obvious when a dead boy’s soul converses with his own rotting flesh – and it’s here that the language comes closest to the gothic lyricism of Han’s previous book, The Vegetarian…By choosing the novel as her form, then allowing it to do what it does best – take readers to the very centre of a life that is not their own – Han prepares us for one of the most important questions of our times: “What is humanity? What do we have to do to keep humanity as one thing and not another?” She never answers, but this act of unflinching witness seems as good a place to start as any.”—Eimear McBride, The Guardian
"Harrowing...Han’s novel is an attempt to verbalize something unspeakable… 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.”—Publishers Weekly
“With exquisitely controlled eloquence, the novel chronicles the tragedy of ordinariness violated…In the echo chambers of Han’s haunting prose, precisely and poetically rendered by Smith, the sound of that heartbeat resonates with defiant humanity.”—New Statesman
“Han Kang’s writing is clear and controlled and she handles the explosive, horrifying subject matter with great warmth.”—The Times
“Searing…In Human Acts [Kang] captures the paradox of being human: the meat-like, animal reduction of our humanity—the dead bodies of the beginning chapter – alongside our ability to love and suffer for our principles, and die for them, that make us truly human. She is excellent in summarizing this paradox… If it hopes to tie the personal with the political, it does the former so much more powerfully: a mother thinking of her dead son, for example, displays literary mastery – as subtle and specific as it is universally heartbreaking.”—The Independent
“A technical and emotional triumph... A conversation of which we rarely hear both sides: the living talking to the dead, and the dead speaking back.”—The Sunday Telegraph (5 star review)
“A grim but heartfelt performance, touching on the possibility of forgiveness and the survival of the spirit.”—The Sunday Times
“Harrowing…Human Acts portrays people whose self-determination is under threat from terrifying external forces; it is a sobering meditation on what it means to be human.”—Financial Times
“A harrowing journey… By its very existence Human Acts is an important and necessary book…Astonishing.”—The National
"Human Acts is a stunning piece of work. The language is poetic, immediate, and brutal. Han Kang has again proved herself to be a deft artist of storytelling and imagery." — Jess Richards
“A rare and astonishing book, sensitively translated by Deborah Smith, Human Acts enrages, impassions, and most importantly, gives voices back to who were silenced” —The Observer (UK)
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Top Customer Reviews
Who today knows anything about the Gwangju massacre? I freely admit that I myself had to research it in the course of reading "Human Acts," as my own knowledge of it was nil. (How much coverage did it even receive in the American press at the time? To be sure, how much were Americans made aware of the overall brutality of the South Korean government--our proudly supported ally--of that era?) But the point of the book is that just because life may go on for the vast majority of us in our obliviousness to acts of either spasmodic or systematic violence, it can't go on, who by their sheer identity as witnesses find their lives forever changed. In a single act of brutality, its effects can ripple out over the years so that even the witnesses themselves can be counted as victims.
The book's final chapter is the testimony of the author, Han Kang, herself. Having been only nine years old in 1980 and living far from Gwangju in Seoul, she had had no direct exposure to the massacre herself. But she describes how her interest in the episode grew, and when her research led her to discover that a schoolboy had indiscriminately been made one of the victims, she too became haunted by this "discovered memory" of him.
As the various witnesses reflect on Dong-ho and the circumstances of his murder, there are no really no answers, no resolution, to the senselessness of it. There are attempts to rationalize, but ultimately they all turn up empty. There is no meaning to human brutality. Hence, the haunting nature of it.
And I, as the reader, came away haunted too.
It’s a dark view, but for those who survived the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, it would appear that cruelty is, indeed, part of being human. As happens all too often in history, laborers and students rose up against a dictatorship and later were arrested or massacred. As a result, in Korea, the name Gwangju is synonymous with “for whatever is forcibly isolated, beaten down, and brutalized, for all that has been mutilated beyond repair.”
The novel, told in six parts and encompassing 35 years, shows how this act – like radiation – continues to affect the lives of those who remain. In the first chapter, a 15-year-old boy named Dong-ho futilely searches for his best friend Jeong-dae. Soon we learn that Dong-ho is yet another victim, with his soul staring into his own body’s dead eyes. The massacre is played back by a female editor who was tortured, by a factory worker who was brutalized, and, in one of the most emotionally haunting sections, by Dong-ho’s mother, who heartbreakingly recalls his earliest years. Han Kang becomes her own character in the epilogue, revealing her own reasons for feeling compelled to tell the story.
Reading Human Acts in close proximity to Han Kang’s award-winning novel The Vegetarian, it’s easy to detect certain similarities: the unrelenting darkness of the vision, the multiple narrators, the glimpse into acts of resistance, the gradual insights as the big picture emerges. Yet while The Vegetarian was psychologically intimate, Human Acts is broader, dealing not with a family’s trauma, but an entire country’s. As a result, it transcends The Vegetarian’s theme of “what does it mean to be human” and instead, focuses on “what does it mean to transcend our human condition and make the corpses we sing over into something more than just “butchered lumps of meat.”
There is no doubt that Human Acts has aggressive goals: evaluating the macrocosm of trauma as opposed to analyzing it on a smaller one-on-one scale. I, as a reader, was affected more deeply by the mother’s story than, say, the editor’s story on the crackdown on literature. In a prologue, Han Kang’s excellent translator, Deborah Smith, states that this book is “A reminder of the human acts of which we are all capable, the brutal, and the tender, the base and the sublime.” Although the balance weighs to the brutal and base, there is just enough of the tender and sublime to provide hope.