Review: The White Book – Han Kang

022 - The White Book

022 - The White Book

Rating – 3*

In the last week I’ve somehow managed to get through 4 of the Wellcome Book Prize long listed books. This was the first of them, and actually one of my more anticipated books on the longlist as it’s by an author who I’ve heard of! This will be a relatively short review as the book itself was only 130 pages or so long!

The White Book by Han Kang is a rather short and sparse book, and one that having read I’m confused as to why it appears on the longlist. It’s a ‘concept’ book in my eyes, the writing is short and punchy, there isn’t a whole lot of depth to it, it’s vague and focuses very heavily on imagery.

The story behind this book is the loss her parents experienced when her oldest sister was born two months premature in a harsh winter and there was no way that she’d survive. It is heavily biographical, and I think the experimental nature of the writing comes from it being a cathartic piece that was meant for her more than anyone else. There is a lot of blank space – white space if you will – and some of it reads like poetry, some of it like prose. Some of it is vague and out there other parts are clear as a bell. There’s a disparity to this book and, for some reason, it just didn’t settle with me.

It was a powerful book in parts, the parts directly dealing with loss, grief, premature birth and the things which this book was nominated for the Wellcome Prize for were great but, as far as the prose goes I felt it was a bit too far out there for me! I’m not going to say it was a bad book, because a lot of it was great, some of the imagery was great but reading it in line with a book prize about biosciences and medicine, and also comparing it to her previous books translated in to English it did fall short of the mark for me unfortunately.

Review: Human Acts – Han Kang

41 - Human Acts

Rating – 4*

I feel very conflicted about this book, on the one had it is a masterpiece – I cannot deny that, however I didn’t feel that compulsion to read it. It was a book I could put down and not read for a while, and that is what disappointed me. Human Acts is a brutal book, and tells of a period of South Korean history that I didn’t even know happened.

The book is split in to 6 chapters, each from the perspective of a different character affected by the massacre and also using a variety of different narrative voices. Each of these voices is so distinct and unique it’s quite special – much like The Vegetarian was – and I think that Han Kang’s ability to capture so many different voices, and Deborah Smith’s ability to then translate them, is incredible. Often, when there are many different voices in a novel, they get lost amongst each other but with the combination of Kang and Smith that just doesn’t happen.

Human Acts really drained me reading it, I think I should have just set aside an afternoon and read it in one go because it’s a book that needs your attention, but for me it just wasn’t one I could curl up and read in bed which made the reading experience of this quite jolting and an uphill struggle. It’s a book you have to completely get immersed in and I feel bad I couldn’t give it that. I feel if I did I would have rated it completely differently.

As I have said though, this book is a masterpiece and one I will read again in the future, maybe in one sitting on a rainy afternoon while wrapped in a blanket. I’m no literary critic, and there are plenty of reviews on goodreads which take this book apart and really analyse it and do it justice and that’s just something I’m not going to be able to do.

So, this book is incredible and if you have patience and time to completely immerse yourself in a book, if you want a book which will really challenge you and make you think about humanity… this is the book. I don’t think you would be at any disadvantage to pick this up over The Vegetarian as a first book by Kang, all I know is I will definitely be picking up anything she writes in the future – and I hope they keep the pairing of her and Deborah Smith.

Review: The Vegetarian – Han Kang

23 - The Vegetarian

My Rating – 4* 

This is a book which came on to my radar quite a while ago, eventually I got around to it and boy am I glad I did. The Vegetarian is an incredibly powerful book; focusing on a young woman who takes it upon herself to eat a plant-based diet in a country where that just is not the done thing. I was curious about this book, I’m a vegetarian myself (and considering the possibility of becoming vegan) and as this is a very different cultural look at plant-based diets I approached it with what I can only call a morbid curiosity. Not only that, but I’d never read a book by a South Korean author and I really love to branch out across the world with my reading! What surprised me most is this is more than a book about a woman who  becomes a vegetarian; it’s an insight in to society in South Korea, and also a tentative narrative about mental illness.

Yeong-hye, our protagonist, after having a vivid dream decides that she is to be a vegetarian – or rather a vegan; upon waking in the middle of the night she goes to the kitchen and rids the house of meat. This is much to her husbands dismay and anger, who says “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.“. We follow this experience of Yeong-hye’s decent in to veganism (as she rids her life of animal based products as well as meat) through the eyes of three members of her family; her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Each of these narrators gets around 60 pages to tell their part of the story. Their sections don’t really overlap, they don’t really have much in common, the only common factor is Yeong-hye. It was a little jumpy in parts, and I wish there was more from Yeong-hye herself but I sort of liked the peripheral look we got at her throughout.

Now, this book is not for the faint of heart – it is frankly quite brutal in places. There is moments of force feeding, there is sexual assault, and I would also say that it could be quite triggering to people with any eating disorder. But that brutality? It really made this book stand out, and I think it will stick with me for that.

I gave this 4* because it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I loved this book, I loved the premise, I loved the decent from the slightly odd to the out-right bizarre, I loved the journey it took me on. I just don’t feel it quite lived up to what I had imagined it to be in my head. I wish this were more of a social look at one woman and her plant-based diet in South Korea and less of a family drama. But really, that’s my only criticism. The prose was absolutely beautiful, and while a lot of that is down to the translator (Deborah Smith), there is no denying that this woman can write! I will definitely be checking out her other novel (Human Acts) at some point in the future.

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