Saturday 10 February 2018

{Reviewed by STELLA}

Han Kang's semi-autobiographical The White Book is a contemplation of life and death. It’s her meditative study of her sibling’s death at a few hours old, and how this event shapes her own history. Taking the colour white as a central component to explore this memory, she makes a list of objects that trigger responses. These include swaddling bands, salt, snow, moon, blank paper and shroud. “With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me. I felt I needed to write this book, and that the process of writing would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like a white ointment applied to a swelling, like a gauze laid over a wound.” Han Kang was in Warsaw - a place which is foreign to her when she undertook this project - and in being in a new place, she recalls with startling clarity the voices and happenings of her home and past. The book is a collection of quiet yet unsettling reflections on exquisitely observed moments. These capsules of text build upon each other, creating a powerful sense of pain, loss and beauty. Each moment so tranquil yet uneasy. Han Kang’s writing is sparse, delicate and nuanced. Describing her process of writing she states, “Each sentence is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air.” You can sense the narrator’s exploration and stepping out into the unknown in her descriptions of snow, in her observations as she walks streets hitherto unknown, and in her attempts to realise the view of her mother, a young woman dealing with a premature birth, and the child herself, briefly looking out at the world. Small objects become talismans of memory, a white pebble carries much more meaning than its actuality. Salt and sugar cubes each hold their own value in their crystal structure. “Those crystals had a cool beauty, their white touched with grey.” “Those squares wrapped in white paper possessed an almost unerring perfection.” In 'Salt', she cleverly reveres the substance while at the same time cursing the pain it can cause a fresh wound. The White Book is a book you handle with some reverence - its white cover makes you want to pick it up delicately. A small hardback, the text is interspersed with a handful of moody black and white photographs. This is a book you will read, pick up again to re-read passages, as each deserves concentration for both the writing and ideas. 

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