THE WHITE BOOK by Han Kang
Granta, May 2018
The White Book is Han Kang’s autobiographical meditation on the death of her newborn sister, who lived only for two hours. It’s a difficult book to review because it’s a difficult book to categorize. Part novel, part memoir, part poetry collection, The White Book ultimately comes together to form a poised and tender examination of grief and the transient nature of life and death.
If you’ve read The Vegetarian or Human Acts you’ll know exactly what to expect from Kang’s economical and unsentimental prose, translated brilliantly from the Korean by Deborah Smith. But The White Book is more abstract than either of its predecessors, fusing form and content to create a rather unique reading experience. Kang inserts black and white photographs; plays with the physical spacing of the text to assert a visual element into her novel, which only makes sense for a book which is thematically anchored by a color. There’s a sort of hypothetical narrative that runs through the text – Kang imagining a life for her sister – but it’s a rather abstract and experimental distillation of this idea, rather than a traditional plot-based narrative.
This didn’t hit me quite as hard as The Vegetarian or Human Acts, but I still found it striking and I think Han Kang is a genius and her working partnership with Deborah Smith is the gift that keeps on giving. I certainly hope they continue going through Kang’s back catalog and introducing her works to English language readers. I really believe she’s one of the more interesting writers working today – I always come away from her books with my mind reeling in the best possible way.