Book Review: The White Book by Han Kang

Words by Elaine Mead

“On cold mornings, that first white cloud of escaping breath is proof that we are living. Proof of our bodies’ warmth. Cold air rushes into dark lungs, soaks up the heat of our body and is exhaled as perceptible form, white flecked with grey. Our lives’ miraculous diffusion, out into the empty air.”

If you’re not familiar with Kang’s work I suggest you bump her up your #TBR pile promptly. I first came across her 2016 Man Booker International prize-winning book The Vegetarian by complete luck (waiting for a flight in Singapore, I spent some time perusing the bookshop. The Vegetarian was the first book I picked up and had to purchase. It is not an impulse I regretted). Here was a book that completely shattered some of the ideas I had around what literature could be and represent. I devoured The Vegetarian in a day and knew I had just digested something major in the world of contemporary fiction. I quickly sought out her other novel, Human Acts, and the impact of Kang’s writing was swiftly elevated. Human Acts will astonish and haunt you.

When The White Book was first published, I waited for the paperback to become available, and it has sat on my shelf for many months. Waiting.

Having now read the book cover to cover twice in the space of a week (and already contemplating my third immersion) I can wholeheartedly say it has surpassed my expectations in every way.

Unlike her first two novels, The White Book was not designed with a structured narrative reach. There is no beginning, middle and end, but there is a story. Or rather there are magnitudes of stories, contained within the pages. It is a somewhat fractured, melting pot of autobiographical meditations, observations, dream-like prose, and pondered experience. The book intimately threads together themes of grief, place, history, memory, and mother-daughter relationships. A core focus is the death of her premature-born baby sister, whom her mother birthed alone at home when she was 22 years old. The baby died a mere two hours after arriving in the world, and Kang examines the ripple this event had throughout the history of the narrator.

The book is segmented into brief pages of prose, each titled with the name of a white object, some immediately identifiable (sugar, linen, paper) and some that require further thought (breath-cloud, silence, laughing whitely). Each title is a hint at the meditation contained within, the direction of thought and it’s place within the everyday world. Juxtaposed with the writing are ghost-like photographs, presumed of Kang herself, a moving depiction of one of the deeper themes that lie throughout the book: if her sister had survived, would she even exist?

Kang’s writing is elegantly poised, despite some of the deeper questions she pulls into existence. A few words that come to my mind to describe this book: Intense. Quietly moving. Serene. Dignified.

I’ve seen the book described as something more – as a piece of art, ‘something to be experienced‘, and pretentious though that may sound, I’m finding it extremely difficult to argue with the idea.

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