This author continues to astonish me. Her first book, “The Vegetarian”, is a totally unique work of fiction. This book, “Human Acts”, is a fictionalized account of an actual student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Hundreds of people (estimates run from 600 to 2,000), most of them young students, were killed during this protest. This book focuses on the death of one 15-year-old boy, Dong-ho.
Ms. Kang has a wonderful talent for bringing her characters to life. She will follow a trickle of sweat down a woman’s neck until you can actually feel it yourself. So her re-telling of the brutality inflicted on these innocent people makes it a very hard subject matter to read. These people become a part of your life so there’s no turning away when terrible things happen to them. I found it to be a very emotional book. This is not a book for the faint hearted. There are horrendous torture scenes depicted. But as always when human acts are at their worst, there are also acts of courage and solidarity and love and hope.
The book is written in interconnected chapters covering the period right before the uprising began in 1980 through 2013. They include the stories of a young boy searching for his presumed-dead friend, a mother facing denial, an editor dealing with censorship, a prisoner trying to find a reason to continue living and a victim struggling with nightmares so many years later. There is even a chapter about a young victim whose consciousness is still connected to his dead body who tries to puzzle out why he was killed. The last chapter is about the author’s own personal connection with Gwnagju. There is a scene in this book about a censored play that was so moving and powerful that I will never forget it. Often the characters tell their stories to “You” who is unnamed. The unnamed “You” is sometimes meant to be you, the reader, other times it’s you, the dead and yet other times it’s you, the people as they were before the massacre.
Ms. Kang has written a fitting tribute to the victims of the Gwangju uprising. Quite a literary masterpiece. Highly recommended.
I won a copy of this book in a LibraryThings giveaway.