Book review: Han Kang’s The White Book is a novel of extraordinary stylistic purity

The White Book, Kang’s eagerly anticipated new novel, marks yet another change in direction for the award-winning writer

The White Book by Han Kang. Courtesy Portobello Books
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When The Vegetarian – the first of her novels to be translated into English – was published last year, the Korean novelist Han Kang found herself on a path to international literary celebrity of the like not often associated with translated fiction.

The unsettling story about a previously dutiful housewife’s passive descent into a more “plant-like” existence was an immediate success with English-language readers, both Han and her excellent translator Deborah Smith’s fame solidified when the novel won the Man Booker International Prize.

Han's next novel, Human Acts, moved from the arena of individual insurrection to collective rebellion, leaving behind the more abstract fictional world of The Vegetarian for the historical specificity of the horrors of the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980, a bloodbath in which the South Korean army massacred those protesting Chun Doo-hwan's government. Now, The White Book, Han's eagerly anticipated new novel, changes direction again, offering readers something different in terms of content and structure.

Her publishers are billing it as a novel, and it can certainly be read as such. It is narrated by an unnamed woman, who moves to a European city – one that was "obliterated" by the Germans during the Second World War, the immediate aftermath of which she watches footage of: "Above the white glow of the stone ruins were blackened flecks as far as the eye could see, showing where the fire had touched." She finds herself haunted by the story of her older sister, born two months premature, and who lived for less than two hours:

“It was early winter, the first frost of the year. My 22-year-old mother crawled into the kitchen and boiled some water to sterilise a pair of scissors. Fumbling in her sewing box, she found some white cloth that would do for a newborn’s gown.

“Gripped by contractions and terribly afraid, tears started down as she plied her needle. She finished the tiny gown, found a thin quilt to use as swaddling bands, and gritted her teeth as the pain returned, quicker and more intense
each time.”

White is for both life and death – whether a city reduced to ashes or a newborn gown that becomes a burial shroud for a baby "with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake". What follows is not a narrative in the traditional sense of the term, but instead a series of chapters – the longest of which extends to two or three pages, the shortest only a few lines. Each is a miniature work of art in its own right, sometimes linked to what has come before – "'White as a moon-shaped rice cake' never made much sense," the narrator explains in the chapter following that in which she describes her sister's birth and death, "until, at 6, I was old enough to help out with making the rice cakes for Chuseok, forming the dough into small crescent moons. Before being steamed, those bright white shapes of rice dough are a thing so lovely they do not seem of this world" – sometimes seemingly unconnected, bar the narrator's overarching intention:

“Now I will give you white things.

“What is white, though may yet be sullied;

“Only white things will I give you.”

Before reading The White Book, I wondered whether it would be akin to Maggie Nelson's Bluets, the American non-fiction writer's book of "propositions" (a term that evokes Wittgenstein's Remarks on Colour) on the colour blue – a story of grief and love written in 240 fragments that many would describe as prose poems. The same description could be used for Han's work – indeed, in a recent interview in The White Review, she described the book as "difficult to classify, a kind of essay-cum-prose poem."

However, if we compare the two, where Nelson's work comes across as meanderingly meditative, myriad shades of blue reflected in her multi-faceted ruminations, so too there is a correlation between Han's prose and the shade in question: there is a crispness to her pieces evocative of the stark luminescence of white:

“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?”

This is a book you want to underline and highlight every other line or word as you read, yet every time I went to make my mark, my pencil hovered over the margins – deep as drifts of pillow-soft snow – as I remained reticent to taint the perfect whiteness in front of me. The White Book is a shimmering, evocative work. Smith's peerless translation captures every last tiny nuance, the resultant prose so beautiful and affecting that it stops you in your tracks.


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