South Korean author Han Kang broke out in the U.S. last year with the Man Booker International Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian, a transfixing book about the unexpected consequences of a woman's decision to forgo meat. Her new novel, Human Acts, showcases the same talent for writing about corporeal horrors, this time in the context of the 1980 Gwangju uprising, when the military killed hundreds of people protesting martial law.
The book follows a handful of victims and survivors, from a boy keeping vigil over corpses to a woman who undergoes barbaric torture. Han deftly outlines the anatomy of violence, as when a character's cheek is struck so hard that "the capillaries laced over her right cheekbone burst." Wounds form scars, and over decades, the survivors bear reminders of their pain--and of the lives cut down beside them. These political invasions become ultra-personal: "I ended up despising my own body," one character explains, "the very physical stuff of my self."