The White Book by Han Kang

The White Book

What a brilliantly unusual story!

In Han Kang’s The White Book, the narrator is a writer who has temporarily moved to an unnamed European city, a “city of severe winters,” on a creative retreat. One day this writer decides that she should write a book about all things white, and makes a list of objects that she could focus on. Swaddling bands, newborn gown, rice, snow, ice, her list goes on, and she imagines the process of writing this book will “transform into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound” – something she desperately yearns for reasons we will soon come to understand.

The next few chapters reveal to us the melancholic past which continues to haunt our narrator. Her parents’ first child had been a premature baby girl with “a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake” who had died two hours after birth. The baby’s unexpected arrival had caught the narrator’s then twenty-two-year-old mother off guard. So all alone in an isolated house, her mother had spent the baby’s living moments begging her not to die.

For God’s sake don’t die, she muttered in a thin voice, over and over like a mantra. After an hour had passed, the baby’s tight-sealed eyelids abruptly unseamed. As my mother’s eyes met those of her child, her lips twitched again. For God’s sake don’t die. Around an hour later, the baby was dead. They lay there on the kitchen floor, my mother on her side with the dead baby clutched to her chest, feeling the cold gradually enter into the flesh, sinking through to the bone. No more crying.

Knowing about her parent’s firstborn who didn’t survive, and the premature baby boy who came next and met the same fate, make the narrator believe her parents would not have had her or her younger brother if these two babies lived. Because of this, the narrator feels her existence denied onni her life – “This life needed only one of us to live it” and “My life means yours is impossible,” she writes – so the prose in The White Book is shaped by an undercurrent sense of guilt, and deep sorrow.

When I first started reading The White Book, I was bewildered. How can someone miss a sibling they never met? Grieve over their loss with such intensity? It may be because I’m an only child who never particularly wished for siblings that the narrator’s sentiments were unfathomable to me.

In the end, however, The White Book‘s subdued prose completely got to me. The image of the narrator’s mother squeezing out her breast milk after onni‘s burial, the way the narrator imagines how onni would have lived her life – they all delivered an evocative story which at the time I didn’t know was autobiographical!

In her interview with The Guardian, Han Kang discusses how the death of her siblings affected her life. “It was not just about the loss. It was about how precious we are. My parents told my brother and me: “You have been born to us in such a precious way and we have waited for you for a long time.” But there was grief as well. It was a mixture of mourning and a sense of precious life,” she tells us, explaining why she had to write The White Book as a tribute to her onni. So even though The White Book didn’t go to win the Man Booker International Prize last year like The Vegetarian did in 2016, this lyrical book is my favorite by Kang so far! 4 stars.

Note: Many thanks to Hogarth for sending me a review copy of The White Book.

6 comments

  1. Feeling responsible for the loss of one’s siblings sounds like a heavy burden to bear for any child!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Literary Elephant · · Reply

    Great review. 🙂 I’ve been meaning to pick up more of Han Kang’s work after loving The Vegetarian, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. This one sounds so intriguing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I think the writing here is more evocative than The Vegetarian probably because this is personal.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this. The Vegetarian was an extraordinary book, although a little odd at times. This is definitely on my to-read list.

    Like

  4. […] know it was just the other day while reviewing The White Book that I mentioned I was never the one to wish for a sibling while growing up. As an only child, my […]

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  5. […] think about it. It’s a mesmerizing novel that in many ways reminds me of Han Kang’s The White Book. So I wholeheartedly agree with Ruth Lefaive from The Rumpus. “Attempting to write about the […]

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