This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month The White Book by Han Kang, author of The Vegetarian.
“Spare, observant, beautiful. The White Book
is a profound meditation on the presence in our lives that an acutely felt absence can hold.” — Keith M.
Han Kang’s The White Book
has the delicacy of bone china and the fullness of a sail at sea. A seductive but discomfiting blend of autobiography, speculation, and musings on things that are white — sugar cubes, snow, paint, empty laughter — The White Book
seems pulled from a wintry ground that freezes the narrator in a Celanesque fugue while gesturing to the expansive possibility of the blank white page.
To a large extent, The White Book
is the unnamed narrator’s imagining of her older sister’s premature birth and death. It’s a harrowing story: her 22-year-old mother gives birth two months early, alone, in a rural home 20 minutes from the nearest telephone. Her baby dies in her arms. The narrator notes the rice cake whiteness of the baby’s skin, the whiteness of her swaddling clothes, of her mother’s breast milk, the frost on the windows. At the same time, she draws the reader into present-day Warsaw, a frozen city with a violent history, where she has temporarily relocated to wander and write a book about white things.
It’s an intriguing device, though that feels like a cold observation of such an intimate work, one that reads more like an elemental manifestation of grief than the meticulously wrought investigation of whiteness it really is. It’s tempting to argue (critics are doing this) that Kang is mining dichotomies — black and white, life and death, etc. — for essential truths, but The White Book
evades a simple reading. Instead, the narrative engages with the many expressions of whiteness with an almost anti-Derridean abandon; rather than breaking the color down to deliver meaning, meanings are heaped upon it: coldness, sweetness, beauty, erasure, security, fragility, warmth, ice, life, death, the creative process. White contains multitudes.
In a starred review, Booklist
writes, “Kang’s masterful voice is captivating and nothing short of brilliant,” and we agree. The White Book
is a strange and mesmerizing text. On small pages with large white margins, in restrained fragments of prose poetry, Kang elucidates how much space our memories can occupy, and the immense power of words on paper to illuminate the vast reaches of the heart.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here