book review: 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.

Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather


28 thoughts on “book review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

  1. Hooray! I finished this yesterday and completely agree with your take. (I’m reading Girl at the moment, and might write a head to head review of the two so I can consider why Lee’s depiction of abuse and horror works and O’Brien’s doesn’t.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely! I have to check my own ‘ugh’ reaction to WWII novels sometimes because that’s a subgenre that can be SO varied – I have to remind myself that what I’m actually burned out on is WWII fiction set in the US and UK, but there’s so much more out there!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Impeccably researched and harrowing while still providing a strong and compelling narrative” – YES, that’s exactly what I was hoping to find in this one! This is one of the longlist titles I’m most hopeful about so your review is very encouraging. I’m glad there seem to be appreciable elements, even if it’s not a *perfect* read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really hope you enjoy it, and I think you will! (You might have still been on vacation for this but when I was reading it I predicted the star ratings that everyone in the group chat would give it – I guessed 4 stars for you!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ooh I must’ve missed the predictions, but that sounds promising! I would be very happy with a 4-star for this one. Once everyone’s read it you should check back in with the predictions and let us know how many were right! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Naty’s already 4-starred it and I think I said 4 for you, 3 for Callum, 2 for Hannah and Marija! And either 4 or DNF for Sarah if she reads it. I think that covers everyone.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Oooh yes I completely agreed in my review! The power of her descriptions of Wang Di’s life was incredible, however the Kevin narrative was jarring at times. Overall a really incredible book. Going to follow your account now – thanks for the lovely review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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