Image Credit: Granta, 2018
Han Kang’s The White Book resists classification. It is both poetry and memoir, fiction and nonfiction, obituary and a haunting account of her older sister’s traumatic birth. Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, The White Book traces the subtle poignancy of its silent titular colour. From the moon-shaped rice cakes and sugar cubes of her youth, to the cotton swaddling gown that became her sister’s shroud, there is a painful stillness Kang achieves that remains with the reader for a long time after they have read the final page.
In her sophisticated rendering of the novel, Deborah Smith (who has also translated Kang’s earlier novels, The Vegetarian and Human Acts) is faithful to the original Korean, intricately reproducing Kang’s introspective yet impassioned prose. Carefully preserving Kang’s meditations on the transiency and endurance of memory, Smith recreates moments of muted intensity within the text.
The small white pills Kang takes for her persistent migraines become a reflection on mortality, “How many hours of pain has she lived through?”, she wonders. The pale beauty of magnolia flowers reminds her of the yulan saplings her classmates planted in memory of two friends who died. Indeed, the purity of the page on which she is writing presents Kang with a tabula rasa, an opportunity through which to navigate her grief “like gauze laid over a wound”.
As readers, we too are provided with a space in which to reconsider our relationship with our loved ones, filtered through the objects that frame our daily lives. I first read the novel less than two months after my grandad had passed away, on a cold February afternoon huddled in a corner of my school’s library. Above a pair of rosy cheeks my grandad possessed a halo of white hair, like frosted candy floss, that I kept recalling as I read more of Kang’s novel. In an entry entitled White Hair, Kang muses on the quiet nobility of old age, on its ability to allow one to see another “absolutely” when there is no time left for desire and both “youth and flesh have fallen away”. I resurfaced from The White Book comforted, guided, and with a new sense of inner calm.
However, grappling with a terrible grief and guilt of her own, it is in the fragmented repetition of her sister’s birth that Kang accomplishes her most moving work. At twenty-two years old, her mother was completely unprepared for when the contractions came two months premature of her due date. Alone, sweating and shaking from the pain, her mother sterilised a pair of sewing scissors and cut the umbilical cord herself. Her baby girl opened her eyes, eyes that resembled “the chill of the half-moon risen in the day”, for one hour. Even when she had slipped from consciousness, her mother found that when she pressed her nipple between her daughter’s tiny lips, there was a soft swallowing.
Kang notes that her sister did not grow up to drink that breast milk; she did not grow up to be an onni who would hand down slightly bobbled sweaters and scold her quietly with her finger to her lips. All she would have heard were the words of her mother’s desperate mantra: “Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t die.” Kang realises that her own existence means her sister’s is impossible, her life needed only one of them to live it.
A psychogeographical exploration into the tenacity and fragility of the human spirit, The White Book is one of the most powerful works of fiction I have read. It is a novel that is excruciatingly aware of its being written: despairing and hopeful by turns. Kang understands the gravity of recording the two hours of her sister’s life, of making the unspeakable, speakable. The blank page thus presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Could she give this life to her sister, could she allow her to grow up within the boundaries of the white pages she has set out for her? Within Kang’s world of whiteness, we too are provided with the possibility of transcending our suffering with language.