The White Book - Han Kang

Staff Pick

For most people, death casts the world in shades of darkness. For Kang, it conjures the blank nothingness of white. Focusing on the death of her older sister who lived for just two hours, Kang’s book is an unsettling, yet beautiful, meditation on mortality by way of a close focus on the color said to contain all the others. It begins with a list of fifteen kinds of white that, ranging from swaddling bands to shroud, serve as shorthand for the infant’s brief experience of the world. The rest of the work, in short bursts that rarely reach a page, expands on these items. Kang links the facts of her sister’s premature birth and even more premature death to snow, white doors, sugar, salt, ashes, a white dog, white hair, and so on. While always spare, the prose achieves a remarkable tonal fluidity, sounding by turns harrowing, matter-of-fact, questioning, and painfully lovely. A stretch of frozen sea was “like layer upon layer of dazzling white flowers captured in the moment of unfurling”—another image of nearly simultaneous life and death, but one very different from the sister’s. While at one level Kang is exploring timeless existentialist questions—none of the characters are named, emphasizing the narrative’s universal concerns—the book is also a powerful, highly literary, exploration of identity. The opening section is recounted by “I,” probably Kang’s persona, the second by an omniscient narrator following a “she,” likely Kang’s sister as the writer imagines her had she lived. But several parallels in the protagonists’ experience suggest that these two characters are one and the same, as if Kang, who talks of survivors “containing” the lost, has merged with her dead sister. The book leaves this and other possibilities open, just as the generous white space throughout implies a host of things unsaid and presences unacknowledged.

The White Book Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525573067
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: Hogarth - February 19th, 2019

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