The White Book by Han Kang | translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Published by Portobello Books, 2018 (first published in 2016)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Part novel, part memoir, part prose poetry collection; this is Han Kang’s most abstract and experimental work to be translated into English thus far. Even so, I found it more linguistically and emotionally engaging than both The Vegetarian and Human Acts, confirming the writing/translating partnership that is Kang and Smith as one of the most exciting on the international literature scene.
The very loose narrative that ties this book together is our narrator’s struggle to come to terms with the death of her sister, who lived for just two hours. The knowledge that she only exists as a direct result of her sibling’s prior death weighs heavily upon her, and she suffers under the burden of living a life originally intended for another:
“Looking at herself in the mirror, she never forgot that death was hovering behind that face. Faint yet tenacious, like black writing bleeding through thin paper.” […] “This life needed only one of us to live it. If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now. My life means yours is impossible.”
Forgoing traditional structure, the book is presented as a series of vignettes, each capturing a single, fleeting moment. These musings reflect on life, death, and grief, seen largely through the scope of white based imagery – snow, ice, fog, bandages, etc. Why the fixation with white? Firstly, it allows Kang to play with composition to enhance the book’s central themes. Passages of text are separated by blank pages, creating the notion that these thoughts are disjointed from a coherent sense of time and place. This reflects our narrator’s feeling of disconnection from the world around her, as though she is literally adrift. This idea is furthered by the recurring motif of snow blanketing the landscape; numbing, quietening, and obscuring everything it touches. White’s universal association with peace and purity also cannot be escaped; reflections on white birds and bandages a nod to our narrator’s search for hope and healing.
The book is also notable for its shift between first and third person perspectives, as the focus dances between our narrator’s life, and an imagined version of the life her sister never had. Moving between POV styles can sometimes feel like a gimmick, but I found it highly effective in this instance. To me, it was reflective once again of our narrator’s fragmented sense of self, and the idea that she lives with multitudes; responsible for living on behalf of both herself and her deceased sister. It also serves as a nice nod to the book’s autobiographical elements, its push and pull of intimacy forcing us to question how much of what we’re reading is fictional, and how much is based in Kang’s own experiences.
After all, The White Book is first and foremost an exploration of language’s ability to help us navigate our way through grief and pain. The text’s intention is made clear from the off: “If I sift those words through myself, sentences will shiver out, like the strange, sad shriek the bow draws from a metal string. Could I let myself hide between these sentences, veiled with white gauze?” It is fascinating to consider how much of the author is indeed hiding between these beautiful sentences.
Which brings me, of course, to the book’s biggest success, which is its stunning use of language. There is beauty to be found on every page. Striking images evoke powerful emotion, and not a word feels out of place. Long may the creative collaboration between Kang and Smith continue.
If you’d like to give The White Book a go, you can pick up a copy with free shipping from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!