My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Published by Portobello Books, 2017
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Writing while on a residency in Warsaw, a city palpably scarred by the violence of the past, the narrator finds herself haunted by the story of her older sister, who died a mere two hours after birth. A fragmented exploration of white things – the swaddling bands that were also her shroud, the breast milk she did not live to drink, the blank page on which the narrator herself attempts to reconstruct the story – unfolds in a powerfully poetic distillation.
As she walks the unfamiliar, snow-streaked streets, lined by buildings formerly obliterated in the Second World War, their identities blur and overlap as the narrator wonders, ‘Can I give this life to you?’. The White Book is a book like no other. It is a meditation on a colour, on the tenacity and fragility of the human spirit, and our attempts to graft new life from the ashes of destruction.
This is both the most autobiographical and the most experimental book to date from South Korean master Han Kang.
I am quite unsure how to review this brilliant little book. I think it is something that needs to be experienced rather than read about. Told in a series of very short musings on different white things, Han Kang circles her own grief and Warsaw’s scarred history in a way that I found absolutely moving. I read the book mostly in one sitting (it is very short) and can only recommend doing that. This way the interplay between the blank spaces on the page, the photography, and the writing worked to create an immersive experience.
Han Kang’s writing is economical; there is not a spare word to be found. It gives the impression of deep concentration and thoughtfulness which worked extremely well for this book. Another way to describe her prose would be elegant and precise. I loved this. I find there to be something fascinating in being able to write about personal trauma in this way – rather than it reading clinical it made the book all the more profound for me.
I have recently read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which much in the same way deals with a colour (blue). But the two books are radically different besides their obvious similarities. Nelson’s writing is a lot more visceral and blunt, whereas Han Kang creates the illusion of distance while being obviously affected. I am very glad to have read of those these in short succession.
There is now only one book of hers left that has been translated to English and I haven’t read. I am a huge fan of Han Kang’s writing.