Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

Buy it here:

Amazon, Bookshop


From the internationally bestselling author of The Vegetarian, a rare and astonishing (The Observer) portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice.

In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.

The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho’s own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.

An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.


Han Kang made a big splash in the United States with a translation of her novel The Vegetarian. The novel was labeled disturbing and weird, but there was also some controversy about the liberties taken by the translator. When I finished it, I felt a little underwhelmed by the whole experience. I liked it okay but I did not think it was nearly as great as what everyone was saying. It took me about a year to pick up another novel by her, her second released in translation called Human Acts. I wish I would have read this as my first Han Kang novel. 

The story is about Dong-ho and the student uprising that turned bloody and violent when the military stormed the city and shot their guns into the crowds of protesters. Dong-ho is just a kid in 1980 looking for his missing friend in the middle of all of this. He volunteers at a gymnasium where they line up the bodies of the dead for family members to identify. He wants to help, but he also wants to be there if the bodies of his his friend or his sister come in. After the first chapter, the book chronologically moves from 1980 to 2012, with each chapter exploring the memories of people around Dong-ho during this time 0and the student uprising that left its mark on the city of Gwangju. As time passes in the novel, the story gets further and further but the memories of the boys, the uprising, and the massacre by the military never disappear. 

This book is incredible. The first chapter does make it a rough start because Han Kang has written it in second person, with the “you” being Dong-ho’s lost friend. There has not been a novel where this was not a poor choice. It is important that the reader does not skip the first chapter because it does set up the rest of the book, but after the beginning of the second chapter, you will forget this initial awkwardness. Han Kang’s writing is clear and concise and will rip out your guts. There is not a single sentence or scene that feels like a waste of time. We get lost in the feelings of these characters and how they deal with their losses from Gwangju and the student uprising. Each part has an entirely different narrator, with a different perspective, but the one common denominator of all of these people, one common memory threaded throughout the book is the memories of Dong-ho looking for his friend.

Even though The Vegetarian was not my favorite novel, Han Kang redeems herself with Human Acts. She has a new novel coming out in a couple weeks called Greek Lessons, which is a translation of her novel from 2011. I will be looking forward to reading this next because Human Acts really made me a fan of her work.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s