It is always exciting to discover a new author. Even more so when you have a gut feeling of pretty much loving each and every book that author writes.

There are many that fit the bill. But today I will be focusing on Korean author Han Kang.

I was introduced to her writing, when her novel The Vegetarian was translated and released to an English speaking audience a couple of years back. Although she has penned quite a few books, The Vegetarian was the first to be translated into English by the ever reliable and interesting publisher Portobello Books.

It garnered rave reviews in the book blogging world. And all of it highly justified. Because I was blown away by the novel, and it made into my Top Books of the Year list in 2015.

The Vegetarian is about a supposedly unremarkable woman (and this is her husband’s point of view), who one day decides to stop eating meat. Not such a big thing in today’s world. But in a strict society such as Korea with its set ways and traditions, it is an act of rebellion that shocks her family. It is a novel like no other and wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith.

Since then, a couple of novels have been translated – one is Human Acts (which I have yet to read), and the other is The White Book, which is the one I will be reviewing.

And as was the case last time, Deborah Smith’s translation of The White Book is incredible too.

Onto the novel itself then…

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Portobello Books Hardback Edition

The White Book is a haunting piece of work about grief, loss and healing.

This is no linear narrative; the author chooses to tell her story in a fragmentary style, in a series of short paragraphs on every page. The tone is quiet and meditative.

Here’s how the book opens:

In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was to make a list.

The list?

Salt, snow, ice, moon, rice, waves and so on.

It is through the listing of these objects that the author explores various themes throughout the book.

One major theme that dominates is her sister’s death, two hours after she is born prematurely.

Now and then her mother would be struck by a sense of foreboding and give a corner of the quilt a tug, but the baby’s eyes opened only briefly, grew dim and then slid shut. At some point, even that scant response was no longer forthcoming. And yet, before dawn, when the first milk finally came from her mother’s breasts and she pressed her nipple between the tiny lips, she found that, despite everything, the baby was still breathing. Though she had, by now, slipped from consciousness, the nipple in her mouth encouraged a soft swallowing, gradually growing stronger. Still with her eyes closed the whole time. Not knowing what boundary, she was now passing over.

The narrator ponders the randomness of her birth and life itself, and reflects – Would she have been born if her sister hadn’t died?

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.

Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces.

This is also a book about nature, about how fleeting life is…

In the distance, the surface of the water bulges upwards. The winter sea mounts its approach, surging closer in. The wave reaches its greatest possible height and shatters in a spray of white. The shattered water slides back over the sandy shore.

Standing at this border where land and water meet, watching the seemingly endless recurrence of the waves (though this eternity is in fact illusion: the earth will one day vanish, everything will one day vanish), the fact that our lives are no more than brief instants is felt with unequivocal clarity.

Not surprisingly, the colour ‘white’ is a prominent thread weaving its way through this work – it highlights cleanliness, newness, and purity…

Here she is on ‘salt’…

One day she took a handful of coarse salt and examined it closely. Those crystals had a cool beauty, their white touched with grey. For the first time, she had a real sense of the power that lay within this material: the power to preserve, the power to sterilize and to heal.

And on freshly laundered bed linen…

Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?

There are times when the crisp white of freshly laundered bed linen can seem to speak. When that pure-cotton fabric grazes her bare flesh, just there, it seems to tell her something. You are a noble person. Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.  

But ‘white’ signals harshness too…

The sun’s rays pale slightly as the frost begins to form. Trees shiver off their leaves, incrementally lightening their burden. Solid objects like stones or buildings appear subtly more dense. Seen from behind, men and women bundled up in heavy coats are saturated with a mute presentiment, that of people beginning to endure.

Occasionally other colours seep in…a crane by the water’s edge one summer day in Seoul is “entirely white save for its bright-red feet”, or when the narrator as an eight-year old sees “a thousand points of silver sweep in from the distant sea” which she is told is an anchovy shoal. Death is compared to “black writing bleeding through thin paper.

Indeed, The White Book is a novel that reads like a lyrical poem. It has the effect of a soothing balm on jangled nerves. Reading it is akin to an experience that is mysterious and otherworldly. You never quite know what to make of it but that is really not the point – it’s the journey that’s affirming.

Despite the weight of bereavement, the narrator has hope…

The sight of a dish of wrapped sugar cubes still evokes the sense of witnessing something precious. There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.

There is something pleasing about the physical book too. The hardcover is white as is the dustjacket. Inside, most of the paragraphs fit on a page – on the right side, while the left side is left blank. Thus, not only does the writing evoke a reflective mood but the generous expanse of white washing over you is also quite exhilarating.

It’s not all about the reader though and what he/she experiences coursing through the book.

Writing it has been therapeutic too. The narrator hopes that the process of writing “would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.”

The White Book is something we need too.

8 thoughts on “The White Book – Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

  1. Yes, and I read both when they came out in English. By early works I meant the ones that were written before The Vegetarian. As I read in some articles written by readers who read her early books in Korean, those are excellent works too.

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