The White Book by Han Kang: an unearthly, poetic tale of a life unlived

This novel is about trying to part with the burden of being alive because someone else has died.

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Admirers of the South Korean novelist Han Kang are already familiar with the savage, poetic images she uses to write about somatic and spiritual violence. In her Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian, a housewife who renounces both meat and her own body (she wants to be a tree) is force-fed pork by her father and lusted after by her arborphiliac brother-in-law.

In Han’s next book, Human Acts, she described the violent suppression by the Korean military dictator Chun Doo-hwan of the 1980 student uprising through the eyes of a carousel of narrators: a boy seeking his friend in piles of corpses, a murdered boy’s mother making herself a shrine and a dead boy’s lost soul sensing “as a physical force, our existence in the mind of another”.

This physicality of the soul dominates Han’s latest work of fiction, The White Book. Unlike her previous novels, it neither bears witness to the living nor commemorates the dead but, through a series of trance-like vignettes, consecrates the never-lived.

We learn in the first section (“I”) that the narrator’s mother gave birth to a premature baby. Evidence for the child’s existence is scant and anecdotal: she had a face “white as a crescent moon rice cake”, she opened her eyes once, heard her mother’s plea – “For God’s sake don’t die” – and was later buried in white swaddling bands on a mountain. The central section (“She”) is the narrator’s attempt to build on these few details by seeing the world through her sister’s eyes, had she survived. The final part (“All whiteness”) reflects on the strange symbiotic relationship between the two girls, transubstantiated throughout the book by a beguiling selection of “white things”.

Written while Han was on a writers’ residency in Warsaw, the novel is set in a cold, unnamed European city, as alien and linguistically inaccessible to the narrator as her dead sister. Conflating place and person, she wonders how best to communicate with a baby who could neither speak nor comprehend language.

It’s a riddle that justifies the novel’s imagistic quality, as if through descriptions of white objects or phenomena, the narrator might create a universal language to communicate with those we have lost, or never known. “I wanted to show you clean things,” she says to her dead sister. “Before brutality, sadness, despair, filth, pain…”

It is a profound, beautiful and doomed project. Each “white thing” that she “sees” – rime, frost, a lace curtain, a dropped handkerchief, a clenched fist – is sullied. Just as snow merely hides evidence of a city once brutalised by war, just as white paint conceals stains rather than removing them, so the sister, in her parallel narrative, wanders the strange city only to discover that she, too, merely “imitated the steady gait of one who had never been broken”.

There is a tender moment when the narrator imagines her older sister, had she lived, helping her with maths homework: “That’s really simple, you’re just overthinking it,” the imaginary sibling says. Time after time, Han’s writing grapples with the insoluble, overwrought nature of trauma. If I have one criticism of the book, it is that I’m not sure about the inclusion of seven black-and-white photos of a woman (presumably Han) holding various objects that appear elsewhere in the novel – a white pebble, swaddling bands, a newborn’s gown. They hint at a misjudged lack of confidence in the words (which have, once again, been beautifully translated by Deborah Smith).

In a vignette titled “Laughing whitely”, the narrator attempts to translate this peculiar phrase for non-native speakers. It means “laughter that is faint, cheerless, its cleanness easily shattered”; to laugh “whitely” is to “force a laugh, quietly enduring some internal struggle”. It can also be done by “someone struggling to part from something inside himself”.

The White Book is about trying to part with the burden of being alive because someone else has died. Han’s non-linear, disembodied prose is the perfect medium wherein the sisters can coexist: “Were it not the case that life stretches out in a straight line,” thinks the resurrected sister, “she might at some point become aware of having rounded a bend. 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 tragedy – and consolation – is that we are all as coloured by the greener grass of a life unlived as we are by the one we are living. 

The White Book
Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith
Portobello Books, 128pp, £10

This article appears in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old