Like many of the readers who have read or are currently reading this novel, I was intrigued by Han Kang's earlier novel, The Vegetarian. The Vegetarian elicited many different, strongly-held views from its readers. Many were haunted or captivated. Some were horrified. Others were simply confused. Although Human Acts is a very different story told in a wholly different manner, it is likely to garner may of the same feelings as its predecessor.
Human Acts is gorgeously written and achingly tender. Though one must recognize that translation plays a part in Kang's novels, the words here have a rhythm and beauty. There is strength in these sentences and they stand together to build a solid piece of literature. The story itself, centering on the 1980 failed student revolution in South Korea, is heartbreaking and its concise packaging aids in keeping the reader's interest. Minor details make the story very real. The characters carry traits that really bring them to life.
Yet, like The Vegetarian, there are omissions and vague descriptions in Human Acts that make the story dream-like. Most of the story is told in the second person. All these vague “you”s mold a more poetic text, but alienate the reader. New characters are introduced every chapter, but it takes pages (or an entire chapter) to determine who this new character is. Sometimes, at the end of a chapter, I continued to struggle with how the selection into the larger story. Much of this confusion is caused by the method of telling the story. The “you” was inconsistent; sometimes it was the subject of the chapter, other times it was another character the narrator of the chapter was talking to. And yet, the ethereal quality evoked by these vague components is part of the beauty and draw of Kang's works.
Though Human Acts is nearly as surreal in terms of language and delivery as The Vegetarian, its more concrete subject manner will likely make the novel more relatable for an American audience. It is not nearly as strange and memorable as The Vegetarian, but it is remarkable in its own ways.