The woman seems trapped in darkness. Who is this woman supposed to represent? The narrator? The ghost of the sister?
Book review: Han Kang’s The White Book is a novel of extraordinary stylistic purity
The novelist Kang? All or none of the above? The literal answer is that they are photographs of a performance by Kang, shot by the photographer Choi Jinhyuk. The text is a loose collection of thoughts, scenes, and images.
Few are longer than a page. Some subsections describe what the sister might have done—having an X-ray, finding a pebble, attempting to befriend a dog. Others contemplate white things—seagulls, a dead butterfly, a lace curtain.
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At first, this similarity is disorienting: it is hard to see where one perspective ends and the other begins. Slowly, the reader realises that this muddling is the point. The concern of the narrator is not whether the sister would have been a vastly different person, but what it means to replace one life with another. But the narrator cannot conjure a deathless sister, because her understanding of her sister is steeped in death.
The conundrum of the book is: what does it mean to have survived?
And, if you have survived, how can you recreate what is gone? Over the course of the text, Kang subtly connects the loss of a sister to the struggles of a European city and the inadequately acknowledged atrocities in Korea. The narrator imagines the sister looking at candles burning, which have been lit for those killed by the German army.
The White Book | Literary Hub
Nelson imagines what it means to love blue, which becomes a metaphor for melancholy and desire and a past relationship. Despite their similarities, the two books are very different in pitch. Kang has only three major sections and the subsections are unnumbered. They are divided using white space, as if the narrator needs to take a breath between each thought.
When she references another writer, it is not to display academic credentials but to tell us the name of his daughter. A reader who enjoyed Bluets will probably appreciate The White Book , but they are as distinct from one another as new snow is from clear sky.
It is listed as fiction, but could easily be read as poetry or a collection of lyrical essays. What does this mean? In traditional Korean culture, white represents both death and innocence. It is difficult to protect a white book. Slotted in a tote or a handbag, it will easily become smudged and wrinkled.
Rain and grass will change the cover. The book itself is vulnerable and therefore precious. Bringing, perhaps, the realisation that nothing of that past could now be glimpsed were she to cast a quick glance over her shoulder. This road might be covered not with snow or frost but with the soft tenacity of pale-green spring grasses.
The White Book Han Kang. Sign up. You are browsing in private mode. Photo: Getty.