Book Review: The White Book

“the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior”

The White Book, by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), is prose yet reads with the piercing beauty of poetry. It contains a series of haunting and evocative short studies on the ripples created by loss.

At twenty-two years of age the narrator’s mother gave birth to a premature baby, alone in an isolated house in the countryside. The child lived for less than two hours. The manner in which this firstborn entered and left the world remained as a shadow within the family. As the mother continued to mourn her dead daughter, her subsequent living daughter observed in the knowledge that she would not exist had her sister lived.

Each vignette in the collection is wound around a white object such as: swaddling bands, gauze, snow, a white bird, a shroud. The narrator has travelled to a strange city where she ponders her surroundings and their effect. She remembers aspects of her life thus far, including the stories she was told about her past and before she was born.

The observations are visual, internal and resonant. There is no sound other than the echo of her personal history. The narrator is living with the inevitability of loss, that all will one day die. For birth, marriage and death there are rituals – attempts to slow the erasure of those who have gone.

“there has never been a time when the only comfort lay in the impossibility of forever”

Just as freshly fallen snow adds a cleansing, soft beauty to the world it shrouds, so the writing is breathtaking in the visceral wonder it offers as it wraps itself around moments in time. The words are thoughtful and contemplative – hopeful in their acceptance of what cannot be changed.

“Each moment 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 empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived”

This is writing to be savoured. An exquisite yet grounded read.


Book Review: The Impossible Fairytale

The Impossible Fairytale, by Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong), tells the story of The Child, a twelve year old girl living in Korea who, unbeknown to anyone at her school, suffers appalling abuse at the hands of her mother. She deals with her pain by inflicting suffering on others. She wants to kill.

The Child has learned that punishments are minimised if she is can get through each day unnoticed. She moves softly, interacts only when necessary, rarely speaks. She lives life on the margins, merging with the background of others’ everyday existence.

The reader is introduced to her classmates. Mia is a pretty girl granted everything she desires by her indulgent parents. She keeps two journals – one to be handed in at school and one for her secrets. As she lives a gentle, unconstrained life her secrets are few.

The boys in the class play rough games, hurting each other in the name of fun. They torture and kill insects and small animals. They mercilessly bully a child with special needs. Mia and The Child observe this behaviour. The casual cruelties of children are horrifically portrayed.

The Child acquires a key to the classroom and writes in her classmates’ journals. When her tampering is discovered the teacher demands that the culprit come forward, to no avail. The Child is worried that she will be discovered and attempts to hide what she has done. A chance encounter draws Mia into her web with devastating consequences.

The second part of the book picks up the story and turns meta, developing it from the point of view of an author completing the work. This change took some time to segue with before regaining my attention.

Throughout there is much play on words. The voice employed in both sections is detached yet compelling. There is repetition and a number of strange dream sequences but what is conveyed remains chillingly coherent.

The writing is savage, playful, visceral and intellectually stimulating. There is a raw energy to its progression, a dreadful realism at the heart of its depictions that make them grim yet gripping.

Unusual but never difficult, this is an impressive read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tilted Axis.