Oct/Nov 2018 Reviews & Interviews

The White Book

The White Book.
Han Kang. Translation by Deborah Smith.
Granta. 2018. 161 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84627 695 8.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! The White Book is a meditative book. It is a small white book, its chapters tiny and set on the pages with whiteness around them. Its mood is calm and its language poetic. And it needs to be read slowly and in quietness.

It begins with a list: Swaddling bands / Newborn gown / Salt / Snow / Ice / Moon / Rice... all white things the writer pondered as she contemplated her need to write this book. And writing it, she hopes, will be "transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound."

There is an underlying grief to be healed. She writes of the premature birth of a baby, "white as a moon-shaped rice cake"—a baby girl who died, and who would have been her elder sister. She dreams of her—her "onni," who would have scolded her, helped her with her homework, cared about her.

Moving to a strange European city, she finds whiteness everywhere—in light, snow, fog. It seems to reflect the fragility of life, the need, as in this war-devastated city, to re-create, rebuild, incorporating into the new everything that has gone before. She begins, then, to recreate a life for her dead sister.

She imagines, again, her sister's birth, her mother's plea, "Don't die. For God's sake don't die," and the sudden flood of milk filling her mother's breasts. "She. I think of her living to drink that milk," she begins. And chapter-by-brief-chapter, page-by-page, she gives her sister life.

Nothing about this book is maudlin. Whiteness and light flood it. Only the few photographs are in black-and-white, and they, too, are images for contemplation.

Han Kang is Korean, and her books have already won international prizes. Deborah Smith translates this book seamlessly, and its language is seductive, sophisticated, and beautiful. This is indeed a transformative and transforming book about love, grief, and life.


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