The White Book
by Han Kang
Portobello Books

Here are a few things that The White Book by Han Kang is not. It isn’t very long – just 128 relatively unpacked pages. Most individual sections last fewer than three pages, and many barely trouble much more than a single sheet of “black writing through white paper” (to quote one chapter title).

Nor is it very conversational, either in terms of dialogue or tone. A typical example of oblique lyricism inquires how the ghosts of a particular city behave in an early morning fog: “Do they greet each other, through the gaps between those water molecules which bleach their voices white?”

If your taste runs to, say, Lee Child or even Han’s own prize-winning international breakthrough, The Vegetarian (winner of 2016’s Man Booker International Prize), you may doubt whether The White Book is a novel at all. It seems to have more in common with the short, avant garde “fizzles” of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing (1967) and later prose works, the precise, laser-guided sentences of which feel like poetry, albeit without rhymes and line breaks.

Finally, there is no obvious plot, story or narrative. An unnamed woman, possibly Han, though it needn’t be, wanders through an unnamed European city (possibly Warsaw) destroyed by the Nazis in the second world war and ponders the brittleness of the world.

As Han’s focus alternates between inner and outer worlds, personal time and the historical, other locations and preoccupations arise, including South Korea’s Gwangju massacre, which inspired her previous book, Human Acts (2014). What connects one to the next is a preoccupation with white – as metaphor, material presence and ephemeral absence.

The prose generates its considerable intensity not from contrived story arcs or dramatic set pieces, but by attending to minute parcels of existence and attempting to give them form

While this summary might make The White Book sound like a literary parlour game (“Write 25,000 words on your favourite non-colour”), the experience of reading proves deeply moving and curiously gripping. The prose generates its considerable intensity not from contrived story arcs or dramatic set pieces, but by attending to minute parcels of existence and attempting to give them form.

“Now and then the passage of time seems acutely apparent,” our narrator writes, describing the migraines she suffered as an adolescent. “Even the smallest task is left suspended as I concentrate on simply enduring the pain, sensing time’s discrete drops as razor-sharp gemstones grazing my fingertips. One deep breath drawn in, and this new moment of life takes shape distinct as a bead of blood […] Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed.”

This sort of unflinching description feels familiar from The Vegetarian, and slightly different: more abstract, more intimate, more considered. Nowhere is a moment more vivid than in the story of the narrator’s older sister, who died in her mother’s arms less than two hours after birth.

With dispassionate tact, the narrator recalls the desper­ation of her 22-year-old mother thrust suddenly into labour, so panicked that she boils water and prepares to deliver her own baby. In such heightened circumstances, each tiny detail becomes a relic as precious as hundreds of photographs taken over years of a person’s life: the makeshift white gown made as the contractions grew stronger; the twitch of the baby’s lips. “Two black unseeing eyes are turned towards the woman’s face – drawn in the direction of her voice. Not knowing what has been set in motion, these two are still connected. In a silence shot through with the smell of blood. What lies between the two bodies is the white of swaddling clothes.”

What breaks the heart is the death that unfolds, second by second. “Don’t die,” the mother repeats like a mantra, until the baby does exactly that. The final scene offers a hideously poignant parody of maternal tenderness: “They lay there on the kitchen floor, my mother on her side with the dead baby clutched to her chest, feeling the cold gradually enter into the flesh, sinking through to the bone. No more crying.”

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Where does this leave Han herself? Why write a book about such raw pain? It’s a thought that has occurred to the author herself. “I wondered what meaning might lie in this task, in peering into the heart of these words,” she writes, echoing perhaps Joseph Conrad’s Marlow in The Heart of Darkness (1899).

Clues to her motivation are scattered about. Some seem banal: “Last spring, someone asked me whether I’d ‘had a particular experience when you were young, which brought you close to sadness?’”

The questioner was a radio host, which suggests this new book began during the flush of Han’s recent international fame. Answering the question, Han (or at least her fictional proxy) lied. Instead of telling the story of her sister, she remembers a pet dog that died when she was five. The narra­tive teases autobiographical elements such as this without pinning them down: there is a later, albeit vague allusion to an onstage reading (possibly), where a blinding spotlight maroons the protagonist (“she”) in a “sea of black”.

The resulting book, at once plain-spoken and elliptical, becomes a place where Han conceals and reveals herself. “If I sift those words through myself, sentences will shiver out, like the strange, sad shriek the bow draws from a metal string,” she writes. “Could I let myself hide between these sentences, veiled with white gauze?”

Gauze, as Han well knows, heals as well as hides, and one feels her desire to restore if not redeem – both her past and her sister’s short life: “I felt that yes, I needed to write this book, and that the process of writing it would be transform­ative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.”

Both the form and delicately nuanced prose strain to say the unsayable. Our narrator returns again to her dead sister who “had never learned language at all […] For her there would only have been a voice. Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t die. Unintelligible words, the only words she was ever to hear.”

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Life, as our narrator recalls as she follows her sister’s path from womb to world, can be limitless, but it is also circumscribed by our perception, our language, our experience and our span of time. This short book revels in what is fleeting, fragile, vulnerable, small, vanished and forgotten.

But, by virtue of sweating the small things, The White Book matches many of the so-called grand novels published in recent months. It is often the tiniest details that unite us, no matter where, why and how we live, even if for less than two hours: “Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.”

There are lots of things The White Book is not. It is, however, a brave, brilliant and emotional masterpiece, and quite unlike anything else you will read this year.