HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
Published by Hanover Square Press on May 7, 2019
My Rating: ★★★★☆
How We Disappeared tells the story of a young Singaporean girl’s experience as a ‘comfort woman’, a euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers during World War II. I was initially cautious about this book because stories about sexual violence (and especially sexual violence during wartime) can slide into the realm of trauma porn, but thankfully this book doesn’t fall into that trap. While Lee does zoom in on her protagonist’s traumatic experiences, she also situates them in the larger context of healing from the trauma, which makes the novel ultimately hopeful in tone rather than oppressively bleak.
Aside from that, Lee also splits the narrative between two main characters and two timelines, which allows readers to ‘breathe’ between the heavier scenes. We first meet Wang Di as a young woman in an occupied Singapore, and then again as an old woman in the present, mourning the loss of her husband. We also meet Kevin, our second protagonist, in the present timeline. Kevin is a young schoolboy who tries to solve a family mystery from the letters that his Ah Ma (paternal grandmother) leaves behind after her death, tracing a path that will eventually lead him to Wang Di. Kevin is more solemn than the boy narrator in Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, but his voice provides a refreshing change of pace from the grimness Wang Di’s story.
Still, I have to admit that I found Wang Di’s past more compelling than either her present or Kevin’s detective work; Lee seems to have invested more effort in depicting Singapore during wartime, so I found the past more immersive than the present. The period details, like the unsentimental practicality of Wang Di’s parents (which reminds me of my own grandparents), the matchmaking process, and the terror of the air raids were also very interesting to me, not only because they were realistic, but also because they fill a gap in my own history education.
I’m going to go into a brief aside here so I hope you’ll bear with me for a bit, but I swear I have a point. I live in the Philippines, and because we were also one of the countries occupied by the Japanese during WWII, I’m already familiar with this period, courtesy of my elementary and high school social studies classes. Despite that, much of what I read here still came as a surprise to me. At first I thought this was because of my patchy memory, but when I checked out one textbook module online, I realized that maybe it’s less a me thing than it is a textbook thing. For example, there were only two sentences about Filipina comfort women in the whole chapter, and one of them reads:
“Many women were disrespected and used by the Japanese as entertainment.”
That’s it. Years of brutality cloaked in appallingly benign words like disrespected and used as entertainment, as if the Japanese soldiers had just called them names and played pranks on them. Our teacher probably explained more beyond that, but I’d still not grasped the extent of the wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese until I read this book. That’s why I really appreciate the historical details in How We Disappeared—while our experience is not exactly the same as Singapore’s, it brings the essence of those years alive in a way that years of primary and secondary education were not able to.
Another thing I appreciate is how Lee makes Wang Di’s wartime struggles concrete without resorting to gratuitous graphic depictions of violence. While Wang Di’s harrowing experiences did make me extremely uncomfortable, I felt that the overarching focus was still her survival of those experiences, rather than the sheet brutality of the experiences themselves:
The more men I’d had to work for that day, the more likely it was that I got no sleep—the ache, dull during the day, shot spikes through me when I was trying to rest. This pain, I couldn’t control. But to keep alive, I made no noise, did nothing, and tried not to exist. Those were the only things I could do.
I also loved Wang Di’s friendship with the two other comfort women, Jeomsun and Huay, and how they look after each other despite the direness of their circumstances. They already have very little to give, so each sacrifice they made for each other ends up meaning so much. This portrayal of genuine female friendship was one of the more moving aspects of the novel.
There were a number of other things that How We Disappeared did well, but I’ll touch briefly on what didn’t work for me. While the events of the present timeline did offer the readers a brief reprieve, I felt that it lacked the narrative force that the past had—everything just moved very slowly, and Kevin seemed to exist as a plot device to allow the past to be told. There was also a filler quality to the present events in first half of the novel, which might be the reason why it took me longer than usual to get through this book.
Overall, though, How We Disappeared is a harrowing, deeply affecting, and ultimately hopeful look at trauma and memory, and an exploration of the power that telling a story has to heal. Similar to works like Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line and Pachinko, How We Disappeared is less remarkable for its style than for the importance of the story it’s trying to tell, and I think it’s a story that’s truly worth reading.
Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist
- Weather by Jenny Offill – ★★★★
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
- How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – ★★★★
- Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – ★★★★
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
- Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – ★★★★
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
- The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – ★★
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ★★
- Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
- The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from April 18 - May 1, 2020