The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Reading The White Book is like reading an exquisite poem. It is not written in free verse, exactly, but the images conveyed, the very sharpening of our senses, is revealed in every phrase.

The narrator mourns the death of her sister, a sister “white as a moon-shaped rice cake”, a sister she had never known. Instead, she had been “born and grown up in the place of that death.”

“I think of her being weaned and raised on rice porridge, growing up, becoming a woman, making it through every crisis.

I think of death deflected every time, faced with her back as she moves firmly forwards.

Don’t die. For God’s sake, don’t die.

Because of those words knitted into her, an amulet in her body.”

Han Kang examines a multitude of things that are white: snow, salt, a lace curtain, handkerchief or sugar cube…

“She isn’t really partial to sweet things any more, but the sight of a dish of wrapped sugar cubes still evokes the sense of witnessing something precious. There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is colored by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.”

Her writing sparkles, but the end result for me is a certain detachment. I am unable to connect with the loss of a sister I never knew, to feel a shadow over my life from the death of a sibling. But, for those who can, they will surely be moved by this novel, and especially the final sentences Han Kang writes:

“With your eyes, I will see the chill of the half-moon risen in the day.

At some point those eyes will see a glacier. They will look up at that enormous mass of ice and see something sacred, unsullied by life.

They will see inside the silence of the white birch forest. Inside the stillness of the window where the winter sun seeps in. Inside those shining grains of dust, swaying along the shafts of light which slant onto the ceiling.

Within that white, all those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.”

4 thoughts on “The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

    1. Harvee, unfortunately my iPad published an earlier draft of this post which I changed a bit after reading it. Of course there is an element of writing which is to simply absorb the beauty of the words and phrases. Han Kang is absolutely masterful at this. Still, I am left wanting more as I finish the last page.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you dear friend for your review.
        I love Han Kang’s writing. I ordered every book written by women in the MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL long list. When the short list is announced I will look further into books written by men.
        I am at present reading a memoir which has to be on the MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL LIST IN 2019…THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS by Clementine Wamariya.

        Like

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