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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The White Book

Han Kang

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To purchase The White Book

Title: The White Book
Author: Han Kang
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 157 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The White Book - US
The White Book - UK
The White Book - Canada
Blanc - France
  • Korean title: 흰
  • Translated by Deborah Smith

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Our Assessment:

B+ : gossamer-feel but effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A 9/11/2017 .
Financial Times . 10/11/2017 Catherine Taylor
The Guardian . 2/11/2017 Deborah Levy
Irish Times A+ 11/11/2017 Sinead Gleeson
Literary Review . 11/2017 Joanna Kavenna
London Rev. of Books . 5/4/2018 Adam Mars-Jones
The National A+ 30/10/2017 Lucy Scholes
New Statesman . 6/1/2018 Megan Walsh
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/3/2019 Katie Kitamura
The Spectator A+ 1/12/2017 C.K.Hazelton
Sydney Morning Herald . 9/1/2018 Marta Skrabacz
TLS . 9/1/2018 Y.G.Wuertz
World Lit. Today . Summer/2019 C.L.Clemens

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "The White Book feels less like a novel than a manual of wisdom, even of prayer. (...) Translated, like Ms Hanís previous books, by Deborah Smith with exquisite craft and tact, this luminous album of snow, ash and bone shares the salutary quality of coarse salt-crystals: "the power to preserveÖand to heal."" - The Economist

  • "This sense of healing, under Hanís authorship, becomes more of a cauterising, at its extreme a kind of peripheral neuropathy of the soul. It is explored through brief chapters, all a variation on the colour white, which if observed closely -- truly, microscopically -- is in fact composed of differing colours, blotted by the worldís wounds (...) In its own way the novel is a sublime expression of griefís incongruous byways, its busy inactivity, its larger, more elaborate intrusions." - Catherine Taylor, Financial Times

  • "The book is structured around the white things that become part of the rituals of mourning and remembering. (...) At its most engaging, the writing edges close to becoming a brilliant psychogeography of grief, moving as it does between place, history and memory. If Hanís monotone is relentlessly poised and never flinches from serene dignity, perhaps it could not be written in any other way. (...) The White Book is a mysterious text, perhaps in part a secular prayer book. I admire its intention, form and purpose." - Deborah Levy, The Guardian

  • "If this sounds abstract, it is, but itís done with such tenderness that the reader engages with it, and wants more of this colour-coded analysis. One woman, alone in a city and grieving, incites us to examine our own experience and place in the world: our immediate environment, the past, our experiences of loss. Itís a profound piece of work, and not one that every writer could pull off." - Sinead Gleeson, Irish Times

  • "Hanís prose style is often intensely powerful but occasionally becomes more than artistically opaque. Yet she binds the elusive properties of whiteness into a beautiful and melancholy fantasy, in which absence becomes presence and the dead are alive." - Joanna Kavenna, Literary Review

  • "The White Book, Hanís eagerly anticipated new novel, changes direction again, offering readers something different in terms of content and structure. Her publishers are billing it as a novel, and it can certainly be read as such. (...) This is a book you want to underline and highlight every other line or word as you read, yet every time I went to make my mark, my pencil hovered over the margins -- deep as drifts of pillow-soft snow -- as I remained reticent to taint the perfect whiteness in front of me. The White Book is a shimmering, evocative work. Smithís peerless translation captures every last tiny nuance, the resultant prose so beautiful and affecting that it stops you in your tracks." - Lucy Scholes, The National

  • "It is a profound, beautiful and doomed project. (...) Time after time, Hanís writing grapples with the insoluble, overwrought nature of trauma. If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Iím not sure about the inclusion of seven black-and-white photos (...). They hint at a misjudged lack of confidence in the words (which have, once again, been beautifully translated by Deborah Smith)." - Megan Walsh, New Statesman

  • "Although her new novel, The White Book, occupies a somewhat quieter register, it too is formally daring, emotionally devastating and deeply political. (...) In this subtle and searching novel, Kang, through Smith, proposes a model of genuine empathy, one that insists on the power of shared experience but is not predicated on the erasure of difference." - Katie Kitamura, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(M)editative and slow and deeply personal. This is both an autobiographical book and a work of fiction. (...) This is a breathtakingly beautiful, compassionate, open, moving book. It is immensely special. In its pages are evidence of a true genius." - Claire Kohda Hazelton The Spectator

  • "The White Book is Han Kang's most experimental fictional work to date. (...) Kang's book is marked by a wonder of the incorporeal world. Her characteristically poetic writing, driven by the visual ornaments of the colour white, is most potent in short fragments. And the language avoids being ornate, a task made difficult without a linear plot driving the story. (...) Kang's novella of "whiteness" is a story of devotion, a most beautiful eulogy honouring the one that came before her." - Marta Skrabacz, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "This is the third of Hanís novels to be translated by Deborah Smith, and the one most concerned with language, its imagery distilled to its essence. It is also a book of blurred edges: classified as a novel, it is more like a collection of prose poems (ranging from a few lines to three pages), interspersed with black-and-white images -- photographic stills taken by Choi Jinhyuk of performance art Han made for the bookís Korean launch." - Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The bookís structure mimics her mind-set. The fragments feel more like little white islands that come together into an archipelago that can only coalesce into oneness after each island has been visited. She is simultaneously whole and fragmented, split apart by the deaths of her siblings before her birth and the ones she has physical reminders of" - Colleen Lutz Clemens, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The White Book is an airy book, with lots of white space around the text -- itself consisting of short bits and pieces. In appearance, it is more a collection of reflections than what one might expect from a 'novel' -- but it still feels quite substantial, even weighty.
       It opens with the narrator recalling:

In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was make a list.
       It's almost an outline of the forms of whiteness that she then turns to, later in the year, when she travels abroad and settles down for a while in a strange land and place -- foreign Warsaw (as Han apparently did in 2014, spending several months on a writer-residency) -- and returns to the white shadows haunting her.
       The central event in The White Book is something the narrator herself did not experience, the death of her mother's first child, just a few hours after it was born. This is the older sister she never had -- but also never could have had: her sister's life would have precluded her own, as the mother also lost another child before the narrator was born, and:
Had those lives made it safely past the point of crisis, my own birth, which followed three years later, and that of my brother four years after that, would not have come about.
       She repeatedly reflects on what her mother went through -- and she imagines what it might have been like if the girl had survived:
And I think of her coming here instead of me.
     To this curiously familiar city, whose death and life resemble her own.
       Strange Warsaw -- at such distance from her own Korean world -- is a locale where she can explore these thoughts and feelings. Essentially flattened by bombing during the Second World War, the narrator finds it, too, has been re-created:
     In this city there is nothing that has existed for more than seventy years. The fortresses of the old quarter, the splendid palace, the lakeside villa on the outskirts where royalty once summered -- all are fakes. They are new things, painstakingly reconstructed based on photographs, pictures, maps.
       Han Kang's reflections on this lost sister -- and her mother's hardship in giving birth, all alone, and then unable to hold onto that new life -- are moving and effective. The novel circles back repeatedly to the birth (and death), but is also filled with a variety of reflections and observations, from the present, such as the experiences in Warsaw, and also past -- childhood, youth, the death of two university classmates -- including much that is, certainly on the surface, more mundane ("She walks in search of rice to cook for dinner. Finding sticky rice in this city is easier said than done"). The tone and presentation are subdued, but Han manages to avoid sounding too mystical (as could easily happen with this subject-matter and approach). And while there is a focus on whiteness and white things, it doesn't obtrusively dominate the narrative.
       Verging on the prose-poem -- yet eschewing getting too wrapped up in the poetic --, The White Book is a book that feels and looks light (as, with the white-focus, everything about it surely is meant to), but sinks effectively and memorably in, nicely hauntingly.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 January 2019

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The White Book: Reviews: Han Kang: Other books by Han Kang under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Korean author Han Kang (한강) was born in 1970.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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