When should you read this book? In deep winter, half buried in the snow, considering the idea that your own life is a pure, beautiful blank canvas like the snow you lie in, open to innumerable possibilities… but that it also may be obliterated at any given moment because our presence in this world is arbitrary and returning to a state of blankness and purity is as fatal as it is cleansing, and probably you’re an imposter who has stolen someone else’s existence anyway.
When I downloaded this book, I read the blurb which explains that it is a series of meditations on the colour white and thought to myself: “Hmm. I think this might be a bit wanky.”
I have never picked up a book before which proclaims to be a series of meditations on a single topic. And without the Booker shortlist it’s likely this would have passed me by completely.
A structure of meditations
Thinking of more helpful ways to describe the content of ‘The White Book’, other than ‘meditations’, I plumped for comparing the very short sections as ‘prose poems’. I.e., they are very short little fragments, sometimes a couple of pages, sometimes a paragraph in length, which recall the narrator’s experience with a number of white objects.
For example, she recalls that her parents’ neighbours owned a white dog which she would pass by coming home from university. The dog was always petrified of people and eventually gives up eating, in what seems to be some kind of anthropomorphic hunger strike. The narrator notices that the next time she comes home it has been replaced by another, sturdier dog.
This is the sort of thing you can expect from The White Book.
I’ll confess that it pretty much bamboozled me for the first few fragments. However, it would be incredibly unfair to say that The White Book is just Han Kang talking about white things.
It’s actually a very emotive and moving reflection on the really big themes – the legitimacy of our own existence, creation and destruction, the meaning of purity and emptiness… and that’s not even all of them.
As you read on, the fragments begin to be linked by a single narrative thread; before the narrator (which we grow to assume is Kang herself) was born, her mother gave birth to a very premature baby girl. Unable to reach medical help, the baby died shortly afterwards.
This book channels Kang’s feelings about her unknown sister through the medium of white objects.
Any, even mundane, object or event seems to spark off a recollection or a reaction which draws us ever closer to the sister, from falling snow to the pure white rice cakes Kang’s mother told her reminded her of the baby.
There are very moving fragments where Kang wonders what might have been, questioning whether – as her parents wouldn’t have had her and her brother if their first two children had survived past infancy – her own existence obliterates that of her sister. As if she has in some way caused her death in retrospect:
This life only needed one of us to live it. […] My life means yours is impossible.
The beauty of words
There are essentially four layers to Kang’s book: on the surface, it’s about white things. Then you dig a bit deeper and discover Kang’s sister drawing those things together.
Further excavation gives you layers three and four: the extrapolation of Kang’s experience into those big universal topics I mentioned above, and finally the power and beauty of the written word.
Kang’s love of words shines through the whole book. Look at gorgeous moments like this:
My black shoes stamped prints into the early-morning snow, a slushy layer sheeting the pavement.
Like a clutch of words strewn over white paper.
Half of the joy of reading The White Book (unsurprisingly for a Man Booker shortlister I suppose) is the way Kang writes. The metaphors she uses and the imagery she manages to spin up out of so few words are really just beautiful.
Overall, it was a real departure from my usual reading material which was great. I think the style would really appeal to people who are into poetry in a big way (which I am not, generally speaking).
It’s also a super quick read (I flew through it in a day or so on commutes) so there’s really no excuse not to give it a go. It’ll certainly be different from anything else you’ve ever read. What do you think, will you be giving The White Book a try?
Next up! Number two in my Man Booker series, ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ by Ahmed Saadawi!