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Grief and Transformation in Han Kang’s The White Book

In The White Book, an unnamed narrator employs the colour white to weave an imagined life for her sister, who died two hours after her premature birth, and to cut a track through her simultaneously ubiquitous and unacknowledged grief. Over the course of the fragmented, deeply imagistic book (which Kang has described as a narrative poem), whiteness expands beyond solid objects into concepts and sensations, its every iteration part of an adjacent world in which her sister did not die and it is she, instead, who is absent.

When we think of whiteness, we might think of purity or blankness. For the narrator of The White Book, the colour connotes the very specific pallor of her sister’s face. The narrator’s mother describes the hue of the infant, born two months premature, as the white of a “crescent-moon rice cake.” This sorrowful, nuanced image makes an indelible impression on the narrator and haunts her into adulthood, ultimately provoking an interrogation of the colour: What other instances of white, she wonders, might be linked to her sister? What other white things might speak to the rituals of mourning?

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Sue Rainsford