I am an English teacher, and am lucky enough to be part of a fantastic department; full of creative, passionate, interested people. This book was given to every member of our faculty by our esteemed head of department. She had enjoyed it, and thought we all would too. She was not wrong.
I admit, I was not convinced at first. Really? A novel about 1920s housewives from Hampstead going on holiday? Surely not. But even as I was rolling that prejudice around in my mind, reading the first page or so, I felt some of that resistance go slack. I was totally unprepared for what followed.
This is one of the funniest, most precisely observant novels I have read in a very long time. Elizabeth von Armin writes such perfect characters, with such knowing humour, that I no longer cared about the unlikeliness of the plot, or my – misplaced and irrelevant – impatience with female authors writing on purely social/domestic themes. It’s an utterly charming, absorbing, hilarious novel. That is all.
Full disclosure: I saw this book’s cover and was infatuated. Every morning I walk past a fantastic independent bookshop, and this was in the window in the week leading up to the Easter break. Its strangeness and simplicity got under my skin. Knowing nothing about the author or the subject matter, I bought it and carried it home happily. This happens more often than I like to admit.
Han Kang is a South Korean author, who teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Human Acts is the second novel she has published in English, the first being The Vegetarian – which I intend to read very soon.
What you need to know before reading this novel is laid out simply and clearly in Deborah Smith’s introduction. I was, as always, astonished and embarrassed by my ignorance of the events this novel deals with – a brutal military suppression of civilian protest in a Southern city in the early 1980s. It made the experience of reading it even more biting. The world does forget. People are indifferent. These stories are necessary.
Based on real stories, told from many intertwined perspectives, with a hint of magical realism (that is less like magic, more like hope); this novel uses its structure to wind you gradually towards its heart. Kang does not pull her punches, but this is a novel with a wonderfully light touch. This ability to look straight at horror for a fleeting moment, and not dwell there, is astonishing and deeply moving. It is full of side-glances and subtlety, and more powerfully dreadful for it.