The brutal murder of a 15-year-old boy during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising becomes the connective tissue between the isolated characters of this emotionally harrowing novel.
In May 1980, student demonstrations ignited a popular uprising in the South Korean city of Gwangju. The police and military responded with ruthless violence, and Han (The Vegetarian, 2015) begins her novel in the middle of a disorienting atmosphere of human-inflicted horror. While searching for a friend, a young boy named Dong-ho joins a team of volunteers who look after the bodies of demonstrators who were killed. He keeps a ledger with details on each corpse, pins a number to its chest, and keeps candles lit beside the ones with no family to grieve beside them. The details of this world seep off the page in a series of sickening but precisely composed images. Han’s evocation of savagery and grief is shockingly sensory and visceral but never approximate or unrestrained. Each character’s voice seems to ring in its own space, and though they are all connected by Dong-ho’s experiences in Gwangju, they exist in an uncanny isolation. The novel is divided into seven parts: six acts that each focus on a different character and an epilogue that pulls in the author herself. The parts shift in time from 1980 to 2013 and in point of view, making the reader intimate or complicit to different degrees with the voice of a dead person, a survivor of torture, a mother suffering from regret and memory. Han explores the sprawling trauma of political brutality with impressive nuance and the piercing emotional truth that comes with masterful fiction. In her epilogue she writes, “Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke.” Her novel is likely to provoke an echo of that moment in its readers.
A fiercely written, deeply upsetting, and beautifully human novel.