TW: death of an infant.
Review time again! Today, I’m reviewing The White Book by Han Kang. After last week’s review, I was thinking ‘oh, this will be a much easier review to write!’. Reader, I was wrong. I’m not sure how to categorise this book, let alone review it! According to GoodReads, the most popular shelf titles for this book are “poetry” and “fiction”. The format is definitely prose poetry, but I’m not sure how much of the events detailed are fictional, and how many are taken from the author’s life. The way it’s presented feels more autobiographical and observational than fictional, but without having seen either approach confirmed by Han Kang, I wouldn’t want to say either way.
Prose poetry is something I’m fairly new to, but after having read The White Book it’s something I do want to read more of. The writing in this book is absolutely beautiful, and I used a lot of self-restraint to not use my orange tabs liberally (orange stands for ‘beautiful prose’ in my annotating/tabbing system). I don’t read enough translated literature, but never before has a translated work made me feel such a strong pull to read the text in its original language. Sadly, I don’t know any Korean. Deborah Smith’s translation is absolutely beautiful, however, and I can’t imagine she has failed do the original text proud with her work. The other work by Han Kang that I’ve read, her novel The Vegetarian, was also translated by Deborah Smith and again, I found the language used incredible.
The White Book is presented as a series of observations, thoughts and personal histories, all centred around the colour white. Each prose poem is subtitled with a white item, and the following section is centred around that item. The sections are always brief. Most are contained within a single page, some spill over onto a second. Many of the sections link back to previous ones, bringing back recurring themes, memories or experiences. One theme that tracks throughout the book is loss and grief. The narrator tells early on of the passing of their older sister, who died hours after birth. This is introduced in one of the first sections and is also present in many of the later sections in varying degrees. The idea of being haunted by such a sibling is a theme introduced later on, as is the death of a second sibling, and how these two deaths enabled the later birth of the two surviving children.
Also interspersed throughout this book are images. All are presented in grey-scale, depicting very empty scenes. Sometimes a person sat alone in what appears to be an empty room (possibly Han Kang? I’m unsure, and the photos aren’t clear enough to identify the person), sometimes a close-up shot of hands. I have to be honest, I’m not sure what these images are really trying to communicate, but they do add to the feel of this book as a piece of art. I like mixed media, I just wish I understood photography better to properly understand how these add to the text.
One other element of this book I’d like to mention that I’ve never discussed in a review before is the actual quality of the book as an item. My edition has french flaps, and a very sturdy feeling cover, giving it a bit of a luxury feel compared to a regular paperback, and the paper it’s printed on as well feels quite high quality. The paper is also properly white, which is a nice touch that ties the physicality of the book into the topic it explores.
The themes and issues brought up in this book are incredibly insightful and thought-provoking. Parts are heartbreaking, and parts are uplifting. The beauty of this kind of form is the freedom to explore so many different themes throughout a piece of work without it feeling disjointed or too chaotic. The connecting thread of whiteness pulls together the myriad themes explored throughout this work which is, at it’s heart, a meditation on humanity.
If you’re a poetry fan, this is definitely a book you should pick up. The writing is absolutely stunning, and it explores being human in a way I can’t say I’ve ever seen before. Also, of course, for any fans of Han Kang’s other works this is the perfect read. I’m really impressed by this book, and I hope everyone else who picks it up is as blown away as I am.
Also published to GoodReads.