The White Book by Han Kang

“When clouds swim in front of the moon and obscure its light completely, those same clouds instantly shine white and cold”.

South Korea’s Han Kang contemplates love and loss in her elegiac autobiography that is ‘The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith. A writer’s worst fear becomes Han’s best friend – the blank page. Unlike ‘The Vegetarian’, Han’s newest novel is more than fiction or poetry. ‘The White Book’ is an experience, and a mediative one at that.

Picture the sea mounted to the sand, lacking its instinctual ebb and flow. The structure of Han’s work defies expectation. She changes our perception on life and death, in a somehow nurturing nature. “My Mother’s first child died, I was told, less than two hours into life”. Part one, ‘I’ begins with her sister’s passing. Secondly, ‘She’ investigates the life of her lost sister and the ‘could have been’ – “She grew up inside this story”. Lastly, ‘All white’ is true to its name, blank pages allowing the imagination to flourish. Each vignette is unique, at most three pages long. But as these unique moment come together in a blizzard of creativity, it is clear this narrative goes much further than 161 pages.

Salt, snow, waves and wondering, Han’s emotions are expressed in shades somewhere between light and dark. In Korean, the meaning of white is death, or alternately, innocence. The use of black and white photographs provides negative space for positive thoughts. Han’s description of mornings spent mourning is simply moving. “How many hours of pain…how many small white pills?”

“The white grains lie quiet”. Simplicity and honesty are the bones of Smith’s translation. Narrated by an unnamed woman, the concept of ‘she’ is inclusive of all females, not just Han herself. The miniature plot does roundabouts of birth, the womb and female identity. It is unusual that such a premature, unborn text can carry such integrity and wisdom.

Han writes of the ivory skinned city of Seoul, allowing ‘she’ to exist with every mark on the page. A woman, a sister, a best friend. Her foggy, ephemeral memories remind us to consider who is important in our lives. Sugar cubes in white, milky tea, we all have our own way of remembering. The bond between sisters is like the first time a newborns lips enclose on her mother’s breast; fragile, but necessary for survival. The ties made between women, between sister and sister, mother and daughter, are as inescapable as laziness on an overcast Sunday afternoon.

Han celebrates this, whilst remembering life is indeed fragile. And as remembering comes in many contexts, Han takes us through snippets of her own life. An image of a woman washing her hands in a white terracotta bowl. The thought of white tooth enamel decaying over time. White powdery bones and chicken broth. She brings meaning to all things meaningless.

“Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces”. If you add salt to ice, it melts, and it freezes simultaneously. Freezing and melting. Black and white. Life and death. All we can do is find somewhere in between. Han reminds us of this fragility with poise.

Much like a crescent moon, ‘The White Book’ is raw, unfinished, yet beautiful.

Jamie Binder – On The Town

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