Ahoy there me mateys! For those of ye who are new to me log, a word: though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes. Occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were. So today I bring ye:
the white book (Han Kang)
Background: one of the best unexpected books I ever read was this author’s Man Booker International Prize winning novel the vegetarian. Me review didn’t do it justice. But that book has stuck with me and I still think about it several years later in both awe and fondness for the reading experience. So when I saw this offering at a local library, I snagged it without knowing anything about it. This review of the white book won’t do it justice either.
The very simplistic idea is that the book explores the color white. I know it seems obvious from the title but nothing about this book is actually that simple. Again the author’s first sentence immediately caught me attention, “In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was make a list.” That list started the wonderful journey.
The book is delightful in its structure. Broken into three parts, the story is told in poetry-like-musings that each are centered around a specific word or phrase. Even the novel’s presentation helps solidify and center the ideas of white because there are blank, crisp white pages interspersed strategically throughout the book. The words from the list are also used creatively in terms of how and when they appear in the story. And the writing is just beautiful.
But the true mastery of the discussion of white is in how deftly layered the novel is in the use of the color. The book explores grief, love, mortality, memory, and thought. While there is no real plot per say, there is an emotional journey that had me in tears by the end. One of the central themes of the book deals with the narrator’s (and author’s) loss of an older sister who was born prematurely and died after only two hours of life.
I was born three months premature and survived. My sister was two weeks premature and survived. My own mother had a younger sister who didn’t make it a full year because she was born with a disability. One of the many childhood stories I have about myself that became a personal point of existentialism and also solace was of the fact that doctors said I would have learning disabilities and also might end up blind. I ended up being in gifted and talented programs and am able to see (even if I did have cataract surgery before 40 due to time spent in an incubator).
As someone whose birth story fed into my childhood understanding of self and continues to impact my thoughts as an adult, this story hit harder than I expected it to or even thought possible. I started reading with an almost unattached air and slowly was sunk into the depths of character, questions, and feeling.
The color white was also weirdly at the heart of that. Should someone ask me, white (and pink) are basically hated colors outside nature for me personally. White in waves or clouds I love. White in any real facet of me life – clothes, paint, etc. is unacceptable. I am a creature of dark colors and moods. So given a book where white was so crucial to the telling somehow made it richer and more thought-provoking. White is so easy to destroy or muddy. Apparently white in South Korea is the color of both innocence and the afterlife. I can’t really explain it but the use of a color that I tend to not like combined with the subject matter led me on an emotional discovery despite myself. There are no answers but the questions matter. And I think those questions are universal no matter what a person’s background is.
I think this book could hold meaning for most readers. My copy did not have the photographs mentioned in other editions but I think I prefer that the ideas spoke for themselves. The only problem was that I wish I could read the book in its original language. But what I do have is beautiful and treasured. Arrrr!
Side note: I was going to include favourite quotes but the reader deserves to experience them for themselves. Also I particularly enjoyed The Guardian’s interview with the author about this book called “Han Kang: If I was 100% healthy I couldn’t have become a writer.”
Goodreads has this to say about the novel:
From Booker Prize-winner and literary phenomenon Han Kang, a lyrical and disquieting exploration of personal grief, written through the prism of the color white
While on a writer’s residency, a nameless narrator wanders the twin white worlds of the blank page and snowy Warsaw. THE WHITE BOOK becomes a meditation on the color white, as well as a fictional journey inspired by an older sister who died in her mother’s arms, a few hours old. The narrator grapples with the tragedy that has haunted her family, an event she colors in stark white–breast milk, swaddling bands, the baby’s rice cake-colored skin–and, from here, visits all that glows in her memory: from a white dog to sugar cubes.
As the writer reckons with the enormity of her sister’s death, Han Kang’s trademark frank and chilling prose is softened by retrospection, introspection, and a deep sense of resilience and love. THE WHITE BOOK–ultimately a letter from Kang to her sister–offers powerful philosophy and personal psychology on the tenacity and fragility of the human spirit, and our attempts to graft new life from the ashes of destruction.
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