HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
Hanover Square Press, 2019
Set in Singapore, How We Disappeared centers on Wang Di, an elderly woman who survived Japanese occupation during WWII by being forced into serving as a comfort woman. We follow her present-day narrative as well as seeing flashbacks to the war, which comprise the bulk of this novel. Meanwhile we also follow Kevin, a teenage boy whose grandmother has just made a shocking confession on her death bed, which propels Kevin to dig into his family history.
I found this to be an occasionally frustrating and messy yet ultimately satisfying read. Its main strength was Jing-Jing Lee’s skill at immersing the reader, and the chapters set during WWII really came to life. I do think a bit too much of the narrative focused on Kevin – not to the detriment of Wang Di’s narrative, as I felt that her sections were properly fleshed out – it’s more that Kevin himself added very little as a character. I tend to prefer historical fiction that doesn’t have a past/present framing, and this was no exception; I kept wishing it would stay in the 1940s. That said, I do feel that Jing-Jing Lee ultimately justified this narrative decision with the way the story wrapped up, even if it wouldn’t have been my first choice of how to tell it.
But where I felt this book really excelled was Jing-Jing Lee’s descriptions of Wang Di’s life as a comfort woman, but then also in the depiction of the aftermath. The shame and stigma attached to these young women after they returned home was a heartbreaking thing to reckon with, but I felt the book was strengthened by Lee’s willingness to confront this head-on. I know that we in the book community collectively feel a bit of fatigue where WWII novels are concerned, but I felt that this one was a worthwhile read – impeccably researched and harrowing while still providing a strong and compelling narrative. (If you’re going to read one book about sexual slavery off the Women’s Prize longlist, make it this one instead of Girl.)
You can pick up a copy of How We Disappeared here on Book Depository.