Book Review: The White Book by Han Kang
After the success of The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han Kang’s English translation of The White Book was published in November by Portobello Books. It presents a slightly different side of Han Kang; it’s more personal, and its structure has many people calling this a poetry collection. It’s not strictly a poetry collection, but then again, it isn’t strictly anything else; it can be read a series of connected poems, or as a memoir, or as a collection of themed flash fiction bits. Most explicitly, it is a meditation on white objects and a reflection on loss, pain, and loneliness.
Han Kang wrote The White Book while on a writer’s residency in Warsaw. In the book, she walks the snow-covered streets of Warsaw alone and finds the time and space to process the mourning of her sister’s death by writing. She notices walls and buildings that, after being bombed during WWII, have been rebuilt without demolishing the pieces that were still standing; there is a line in the walls, and you can see below that line the old structure’s surviving fragment, and above the line stands the rebuilt part. In an interesting parallel she makes, the image of the new building standing on the foundations of the old resembles her sister’s presence in her life, without being there physically. She recounts how her mother gave birth to premature baby that could not survive more than two hours out of the womb, the pain of that loss, the mourning that followed, and how this story told to her many years later has shaped her own history.
The book is divided into three parts: “I”, which is mostly Kang’s reflections on moving to an unknown city and recalling her family’s past, “She”, in which we get a third-person narrative of a “she” walking in that city, and experiencing the world around her – the white snow that levels everything, a drunk man sleep by a lamppost, birds flying over her – while juxtaposing it to her family’s world in Korea, and “All Whiteness”, an integration of the white objects mentioned in the previous two parts – rice cakes, snow, breast milk, salt, white hair, shroud – into a spiritual moment of something between catharsis and acceptance.
Part 2, “She”, can be read as Kang talking about her sister in Warsaw, a presence that stays with her and lives through her. In one of the last passages in “I”, she writes to her sister:
The White Book is Han Kang’s most personal and most powerful work yet. The writing alone will grip you with its effortless rhythm and ability to carry so much history and emotion in such a short and concise way. Deborah Smith’s translation is truly phenomenal, and it is worth all the praise (you can read more about her process with this book here, it’s really interesting). Read it as a memoir, read it as a poetry collection, read it as a study of white things. Read it.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.