When it’s hard to find words, ‘The White Book’ by Han Kang

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My recent posts have been seasonally themed, in as much as V and Lanark work with my annual temptation to escape winter into imaginative flights of fancy.  Han Kang’s meditation on mourning is something else entirely.

I read this book when it was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, though that was really just an excuse.  After falling in love with The Vegetarian I resolved to read everything Kang wrote and then spread the word in the hope it would mean she’d continue to be translated and published in English.

This means that I’ve also read and reviewed Human Acts, which felt like a natural successor to ‘The Vegetarian’ in its exploration of public and private violence and the devastating impact of society on the individual.  What was different in ‘Human Acts’ was that the violence which skirted just beneath the surface of ‘The Vegetarian’ was now right on the page, making for an even more uncomfortable, though no less awe-inspiring, reading experience.

Also translated by Deborah Smith, ‘The White Book’ feels both like a development on familiar themes and also a departure from the previous novels.  Its topic is loss and bereavement, both implicitly or explicitly addressed in ‘The Vegetarian’ and ‘Human Acts.’ ‘The White Book’ however moves into a new literary form, one in which, fittingly, the white spaces on the page are as important as the words themselves; what cannot be said is as significant as what is expressed.  The book contains black and white photographs and prose poems taking the reader through a journey of mourning.  It is an intensely private experience, the narrator is isolated emotionally and physically and it seems she is running both from and towards the same impossible situation:

When I go out into the streets, the scraps of conversation which pull into focus when the speaker brushes past me, the words stamped on street and shop signs, are almost all incomprehensible.  At times my body feels like a prison, a solid, shifting island threading through the crowd.  A sealed chamber carrying all the memories of the life I have lived, and the mother tongue from which they are inseparable.  The more stubborn the isolation, the more vivid these unlooked-for fragments, the more oppressive their weight. So that it seems the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior.

Each one of Kang’s books makes me more eager for the next.  Within a slew of literary works that make heavy (and long) work of exploring the inner experiences of intellectual outsiders, she demonstrates how, in 160 pages, silence and sparse narrative can truly convey the most intense of human experiences.  Even reading a few pages is enough to make me slow down and consider the world anew.  It’s hard to think of a bigger contrast to the colourful exuberance of ‘The Vegetarian’ but the ambition and and precision of the writing ties the books together – and make me very excited for whatever Kang writes next.

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4 Responses to When it’s hard to find words, ‘The White Book’ by Han Kang

  1. Great review! I’ve read The Vegetarian and Human Acts, and am keen to give this a go too.

    • I found it was both a natural progression and also something of a departure from Kang’s other two novels that have been translated into English. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

  2. Great review, Shoshi! This was one of my favourite reads in 2018 🙂

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