Human Acts by Han Kang (Must Read) and The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-sook Shin (Very Good)
I tried to write these reviews separately, but realised my reading and understanding of them were so tied into each other that there was no point trying; I was repeating myself anyway.
I don’t know quite where to start with this. I remember picking Human Acts up in a bookstore that boo and I visited. We were supposed to go somewhere to meet his friends and we had an hour to kill. I sat on that chair in the corner and sniffled my way through this book without an ounce of shame. I was reading the next book on this list, The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, at the same time. As in, I had the latter downloaded and was very slowly reading it, and happened to pick up Human Acts in the store because it was short enough for me to finish in two hours (I made boo wait for me to finish before I let us leave).
The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness is written by the same author who wrote Please Look After Mom, a book that I love. I actually didn’t realise they were the same author until Googling who wrote this book for the sake of this review. On hindsight, I can tell; there’s this tone of melancholy that seeps through both. PLAM is more nostalgic, the suffering and sacrifice of the old onto the new. And TGWWL just feels guilty, the entire thing is soaked in it. It’s about a woman, an author, who gets a letter from an old friend who used to work in a factory alongside her when they were teenagers, where they used to stand on the assembly lines making sweets. So it tracks Korean history over the past few decades and the industrialization, factories, urbanization, regime changes, etc. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s very long. And I prefer PLAM to this because it’s also quite slow. Her life drags along slowly, and because she’s exploring with such meticulous detail the things around her, the context, the physical location, her emotions, the people surrounding her – well, these things add colour and stunning visualization, but they also take time to put together, and that makes the entire book a slow read. It kind of trots along like hoofs on the ground, slowly but surely.
The book takes place in the present, with the author as she receives this letter from an old friend and how she feels and deals with it, and flashbacks to her time at the factory in the 70s. Like I said, it’s not fair – but I had to search a lot about Korean history while reading this, because it was entirely new to me with this book. The constant interruption unfortunately broke the flow of the book for me. Because the way the main character has distanced herself from her childhood and tried to block out that ‘factory girl’ part of her life, there’s also an odd sort of distance between the reader and her during the flashbacks to that time, which is when we expect to most keenly feel connected to her, since she’s young, vulnerable, and clearly exploited girl. But a combination of the distance between character-present and character-past, and perhaps the style of writing altogether, culminate in a lack of emotional connection to the things happening. Of interest, the actual author of the book, Kyung-sook Shin, also worked in a factory as a girl, so maybe her difficulty retrieving and revealing that part of her life bleeds into the writing?
Getting Human Acts was interesting because it also explores relatively recent Korean history, and it was – for me – interesting that a few of the stories I read I could go, “Oh, I know this element of history, because I remember it from the other book.” Because I happened to pick this up in the middle of the other, I had to Google fewer names because I had an ultimately better grasp of what was happening and where in history we were (who the ruler of the time was, what they did, what changes were occurring, etc.)
Human Acts is a painful book about a truly painful time in Korean history, the Gwanju Uprising, where locals gathered to protest the massacre of university students who had been protesting against the ruling authorities of the time. The book is almost a series of short stories, vignettes from the perspectives of different people (a boy in the middle of the student uprising, his best friend, an editor fighting censorship, a prisoner and factory worker, and the boy’s mother). Like The Vegetarian, it also uses the second person. The Vegetarian is a lot weirder as a book. This is almost too cold with how it handles reality. Personally, and from other reviews I read afterwards I know lots of people disagree, this just makes it all the more impactful – history and cruelty is also real, cold, and terribly ordinary, and I thought the book did a great job getting that across. Again, the author has inserted herself into the book (right at the very end) but in a way that I had to look up to see if it were true. I loved it. Thought about it the entire night through my bonding with boo’s friends, and months later remembered to ask Emily about it, even.
There’s no book quite like the Vegetarian, you know? It’s completely unique. Whereas Human Acts is more ordinary; I’m sure if I dug enough I could find other books that dealt with horror in this way. But it’s incredible. You learn a lot about what is probably an obscure part of history and, honestly, it makes you want to know more. Ultimately, they’re human stories, and you feel for them to your bones.