The White Book by Han Kang: A review
I am a big fan of Han Kang's previous book, The Vegetarian, and so I was eager to read this new book.
The White Book is quite a different kind of literature. It is quieter, more introspective and philosophical. At the same time, it is full to overflowing with human emotion.
On one level, it is a memoir of the writer's elder sister who was born two months premature and died after only a couple of hours outside the womb. There is a devastating portrayal of the 22-year-old mother, alone and going into labor unexpectedly with no one around to help her. She does her best for her child but ultimately she cannot save her. This is the family tragedy that haunts the writer and her family throughout her life.
That first baby, as well as the writer herself, were born in Korea, but, as we meet her, she has moved to a European city which is not immediately identified but eventually we recognize as Warsaw. It is a city that still bears the scars of World War II even as the writer bears the scars of her family tragedy. Walking through the city brings the memory of that lost sister to mind, and the writer meditates upon her memories and her emotions.
The anchor of the novel is the color - or non-color - white. The writer makes a list of white things and then writes of those things in short, sometimes fragmented, entries. She writes:
In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was make a list:
With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me. I felt that yes, I needed to write this book and the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.White seems to serve as a mnemonic for the writer as a snatch of music or a poem might for someone else.
The novel shifts fluidly between first and third person, between the narrator and her sister, the living and the dead. It provides a model of empathy that one develops by seeing things through the eyes of another, by imagining oneself experiencing things which another has experienced.
I find it virtually impossible to describe this book. It's different from anything I have read before and has an experimental feel about it. In its brief flashes and fragments, it reads more like poetry than fiction. The writing is brilliant and utterly lyrical. Part of the credit for that must be given to the translator, Deborah Smith, who also translated Han's earlier novels. Reading a work in translation must always give one a bit of pause. Has the translator given an accurate rendering of the author's writing? I am no judge of that since I am unable to read Korean, but the language of the books that I have read that have been translated by her has been a joy to read.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars