The White Book by Han Kang

To the stillness

When the day of her leaving draws near,
and she stands in the darkness of this house, there
are words she will want to speak to its stillness,
which she is no longer permitted to dwell inside.
When the night that had seemed without end is over
and the northeastern window is a swatch of deep-blue twilight,
when the sky then brightens to ultramarine and the
clear bones of poplars are slowly outlined,
there will be something she wants to say to the
stillness, in the early hours of Sunday morning,
when the building’s other inhabitants have yet
to stir.

Please, a little longer like this.

To give it time to wash me clean.
— Han Kang, The White Book

Han Kang has once again authored a book shortlisted for the Man Booker International, though The White Book reads nothing like The Vegetarian

In this latest book, Kang starts by listing things that are white, and proceeds to ruminate on the meaning of these things. from salt, snow, moon and rice to white dog, newborn gown, swaddling bands and 'laughing whitely'. In seeing this list, she knew she would have to write this book.

Jumping in and out of a clear chronology, we read about the narrator's sister she never knew, born to her mother, alone at home in her early 20s, who lived just two hours before dying. We learn of the early winter frost that had perhaps been partial cause as to why she was alone and without accessible help when her water broke. She considers the city she left home for, and its history after World War II (Kang was on a writer's retreat in Warsaw). She connects the loss that survivors of the war felt - the voices of lost loved ones in their heads - to the curiosity of not knowing her sister, and wondering if she lived in her place. Because her sister had developed little eye sight, and no ability to speak, in her short life, was she sometimes experiencing what these survivors experienced - did she hear the silence of her sister in her own thoughts, without knowing? 

She ponders in spurts, articulating things that she holds dear, and how they are pieced together. Some are relatable, others abstract, and, every once in a while, a black and white photo breaks up the small pieces of text. It is an ode of sorts, or I read in one review that it could even be considered a secular prayer book of sorts. It is a meditation of mourning, pain and renewal.

Despite appreciating its uniqueness, its simple premise and its important reflections, I was surprised it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International, as the premise blurs fact and fiction, and does not tell a straightforward narrative, and sometimes did not move me in far and vast ways. I will be eager to read others that are shortlisted to better imagine how it might stand out amongst the rest.