Han Kang writes excruciatingly disturbing fiction. Her novels severely bend our expectations of narrative and satisfaction, of communicating and naming. The Vegetarian was the first of her books translated for the English-speaking world by Deborah Smith, the same translator who has since then brought us The White Book. Both works are agonising to read, and need strength (or distraction) to be dealt with.

Han Kang reminds us of the power of writing at a time we may not particularly appreciate such a reminder. But that is once again a reason why her work is so strong. Writing, like pain, is avoidable, and avoidance, like writing, is possible, but it only gives pain. The White Book appears as a careful experiment in form, voice, and sentimentality – an account of writing, and of pain. It is a challenge.

White is the colour of…

The white in the title comes from the book’s mission to read the colour white and the things it inflicts and infuses with meaning – symbolising, as per cultural differences, goodness, life, love, peace, death. The book is introduced as “a meditation on colour, beginning with a simple list of white things.” This list of things extends from snow and blank papers to things like newborn gowns and laughing whitely, which we’re told means laughing faintly and cheerlessly. Like the eponymous vegetarianism of The Vegetarian, the white colour in The White Book is a guiding force. And what a force it is.

I feel grateful as I write this review that the protagonist – and the author too – has given the book a specific malaise that roots it, when in fact it’s entirely possible for this book to be about a depression of any nature. In autobiographical strokes that make it impossible to differentiate between true and false, author and intent, we are introduced to a voice living in a city, a city demolished and rebuilt, erased and reshaped. And like the faint lines that remain visible after an eraser has apparently done its work, the history of this voice remains, upright and defiant, and yet always gone, always absent.

Coming back to the specific malaise: the voice’s mother, at age twenty-two, had her first child. The baby, born at seven months, died a few hours later. And so was born a refrain that plagues the voice and – if we don’t distract ourselves – us in turn. Don’t die – for god’s sake don’t die. It’s what the young mother kept telling her baby, something so literally unintelligible to the infant that it failed to comprehend, to obey, and so died. The voice knows that her life is being lived because that infant’s was taken away, an unimaginable temporal barter carried out by invisible powers. “This life needed only one of us to live it,” she writes.

One of the narrative’s most powerful lines comes from this account: She grew up inside this story. The voice is referring to herself, and to someone else, and to anyone who will read that line. It’s a line free of a paragraph, a truth free of explanation. It’s an image of encasement, and it’s pregnant with the teleology and the promise, of a future, swaddled in white robes like a baby.

…sadness, above all

Over and over again, Han Kang takes pains to read pain. She aims at encapsulations, of colour and experience, in a narrative that is in itself an encapsulation of sadness. What is especially jarring – and immune to distracting forces – is the unsurprising nature of this sadness, stemming as it does from war and miscarriages and dead dogs. Even as our rational heads raise themselves, shrugging to quickly leaven any emptiness we might be feeling, reminding ourselves that death is cog and wheel and machine and all, there is something left behind. We all grow up inside stories of things left behind, incomplete, undone, or else abandoned, finished, rounded off. And Han Kang knows it. Read The White Book to remind yourself that you know it too.

The White Book, Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, Portobello Books.