Review: How We Disappeared

The date for the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement seems to have moved up to the 21st of April! It’s a small change (from the 22nd, originally) but we really are honing in on the last few days now. I’ll have one more review coming up before then (in addition to this one); I’m also planning to read as much of the Mantel trilogy as I can before the announcement, but with one day less to read and review now I doubt you’ll be seeing my thoughts on it before my longlist wrap-up post, though hopefully soon after. In the meantime, here’s a look at another longlister that I have finished reading “on time,” Jing-Jing Lee’s excellent debut novel, How We Disappeared.

howwedisappearedIn the novel, Wang Di is an old woman in the year 2000; her husband has recently passed away, before the two of them managed to finish telling each other the stories of what life was like for them during WWII in Singapore. As Wang Di tries to track down more information about her husband’s past, she also remembers her own horrific experience as a teenage girl in the 1940s. Also in 2000, a boy named Kevin is shaken when his grandmother dies after mumbling a hard-to-hear but shocking secret. He also sets out to find out the truth of what happened to his family during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in WWII.

“The same thing happened to the other girls, their colour and skin and flesh withering away into pale shadows, until they were little more than a collection of cuts and bones and bruises, badly healed. This, I thought, this is how we’re going to disappear.”

This book is told in three alternating perspectives: Wang Di’s past and present, and Kevin’s present. It was impossible for me to resist comparing these characters with a couple of others from this year’s Women’s Prize longlist. First, Kevin acts as boy sleuth, much like Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. Though I loved Jai’s voice in that story, Kevin’s hunt for clues is more productive, making for a stronger mystery element with no lag in the middle. Second, the primary focus of How We Disappeared is on Wang Di’s past, in which she is forcibly removed from her family’s home and taken to be a comfort woman- essentially a sex slave for the Japanese soldiers occupying her home country. This part of the narrative is very similar to the content of Edna O’Brien’s Girl, which follows Maryam, a Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped and abused by Boko Haram, a violent religious group. Though the girls’ experiences are similar, again it is Lee’s rendering that stands out as the more successful of the two. She manages a much more considerate and nuanced examination of how a girl in these circumstances might have felt. The thorough research that must have gone into Wang Di’s characterization is clear, without interfering with the story’s emotional effectiveness.

Before I get any farther, let me warn you that there is a lot of disturbing content in this book. A large portion of it takes place in an occupied country during a world war, complete with bombings, soldiers stealing from civilians as well as abusing and killing them at will, and starvation creeping ever nearer for those who escape military notice. There’s the kidnapping of the comfort women, holding them against their will, raping them, and otherwise treating them like invaluable property rather than human beings. There is also a rift between these comfort women and their people- though they’ve been given no choice about what has happened to them, loved ones and strangers alike blame them for shameful actions. The comfort women emerge physically and mentally ill, with little if any support. Even Kevin is being bullied by his peers, this behavior largely ignored or misinterpreted by the adults in his life. Both Kevin and Wang Di are grieving the recent death of a loved one. If you’re not in the market for a bleak book, don’t pick this one up.

” ‘You know what happens to girls who fall sick here? Or who get pregnant?’ She jerked her thumb towards the back of the house, where the rubbish bins were. Into the heap, she meant. Gone.”

Despite the rough content though, there are happy moments. The writing flows wonderfully, and adept characterization keeps each point of view compelling. Wang Di’s past chapters are the clear standout, but I enjoyed all three perspectives and thought every section added something important to the story. It does also help that Wang Di’s later life is presented early enough in the story to assure the reader that she does survive her stint as a comfort woman and forge a tolerable life afterward. The retrospective angle through which the book’s most horrific details are presented lends a sense of remembering the past but also of laying it to rest and moving forward. It’s a tragedy that doesn’t leave a lingering sense of despair.

In fact, I appreciated so much of the telling that my only real criticism is that the piece of story that connects Wang Di’s tale with Kevin’s is delivered all at once at the end of the book in an info dump of messages left behind by absent characters. This disrupts the established pattern and pace, though given the nature of Kevin’s and Wang Di’s investigations into the past it is hard to see how Lee might have navigated this differently. It also puts Kevin in the position of collecting and writing this tale, which is hard to believe for a boy of his age (ten years old), aspirations of journalism aside. Presumably some time would have passed before he was able to write it at this level, but no actual indication of that is given.

“Sometimes all you had to do to get someone to talk was to be silent.”

Even so, this is a topic I’ve not encountered in fiction previously, and I found Lee’s prose very convincing and evocative. I was emotionally invested in Wang Di’s life, hit hard by each new horror she encountered, and remained interested throughout the entire novel in both main characters and the inevitable intersection of their tales. There was not a moment of boredom or of doubt about Lee’s careful handling of this subject. I highly recommend this one, and look forward to seeing what Lee will write next.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was very nearly 5 stars for me, and I can safely say it’s the book I would be most disappointed not to see on the shortlist. I’ll talk more about my wishes and predictions soon, but this one, I think, is likely to advance: well-written and impactful. Soon we’ll know!

 

The Literary Elephant

26 thoughts on “Review: How We Disappeared”

  1. Great review! I’m currently reading this now but for some reason am unable to concentrate. It’s a heavier read than Djinn Patrol, which I just finished, despite both being about grim subjects. I appreciated your comparisons to both Djinn Patrol and Girl—it really is inevitable to make them when reading a list like this. I’ve previously read comparisons of this with Girl, as well, and this always held up better. (And thanks for the PSA on the shortlist date! I hadn’t heard they were moving it early, and just by one day. I wonder why… It’s not like a day will really make a difference.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m sorry to hear you’re not finding this one as engaging as I did. It’s definitely a heavier read, and the younger narrators are not an element of comic relief here the way Jai is in Djinn Patrol; I can see how reading them back to back might take some adjustment. I hope you’ll end up liking this one, though of course I’ll look forward to your review either way!

      I’ve also seen a couple of comparisons between How We Disappeared and Girl, always in favor of this one, though the boy sleuth connection to Djinn Patrol took me somewhat by surprise! Part of the fun with a prize list is definitely drawing comparisons and weighing the books against each other, especially since awarding a winner in the end does give it all an air of competition.

      No problem! I was lucky to notice it honestly, I didn’t see any sort of announcement about the change, just noticed they’d updated the dates on the website. Shifting it one day ahead makes absolutely no sense to me either.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not that it’s not engaging, but that it’s more difficult to get into than I’d anticipated, though if I do I do expect to find it engaging. It’s just one of those books that take time for me 🙂 I’m taking a break from reading right now since I might not like it if I force it, but I’ll get there!

        It’s a very interesting connection. I’m having a lot of fun comparing these books, though I usually try to be ‘fair’ and judge a book by its own merit. It’s kind of inevitable to compare in this case, especially since so many of the themes are similar.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a good plan! No pressure of course, whatever works for you of the right way to read it. 🙂

        I agree. I usually try to look only at the content of a book when I’m reading and reviewing, but prize lists definitely have a little different criteria for me, especially since the prize is essentially a competition. It’s always worth remembering that all reading (and all art consumption) is subjective, so I think as long as we keep in mind the source of opinions it can be very interesting to see what sorts of comparisons tumble out.

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  2. Great review! I like the comparisons you make between this novel and Girl, and I’m so glad that this novel is done more carefully (which makes sense since this is an #ownvoices book). Can’t wait to get to this!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I hope you’ll love this one! I definitely thought it handled some of the same content and themes as Girl, in a much better way. It does raise an interesting question about what we consider own voices though, since Lee wouldn’t have been alive during WWII. Both books certainly would’ve required extensive research, though Lee’s cultural context is what really sets this one apart. I would still call it own voices for that reason, but I think it’s interesting to note that both of these authors probably had to approach the event they were writing about through others’ accounts. (This really reinforces for me that Lee is perhaps the stronger writer, despite O’Brien’s long and successful career! But it’s probably unfair to judge based on only one novel.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a great point! I hadn’t considered that Lee might not be considered an ownvoices author since she wasn’t alive for the period she was writing about. And your comment about Lee being such a strong writer just makes me more excited for this book!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. WHAT NO. That messes up my whole plan for getting my last few reviews in! Why couldn’t they have postponed the shortlist announcement given that they postponed the winner announcement?

    Re. How We Disappeared, I also loved it, and would like to see it on the shortlist 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was disappointed and confused as well! With the winner so far away it would have made sense to give readers more time with the longlist, not less. And to move it only one day, what could be the purpose?! But I hope you’ll still find time for all of your reviews!

      Fingers crossed! I remember your positive review, it was such an apt comparison between this one and Girl. (It really is impossible not to weigh them against each other!)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Based on this review, I’m now quietly rooting for How We Disappeared to win the prize. It sounds like it does well what many books fail to do: juggle multiple time lines and make them all interesting, avoid falling into “trauma porn” territory, and still packing an emotional punch while being well-written.

    Also, I like the way you compare how this book touches on similar themes or topics from the other WP books. If you do a wrap-up post, are you going to include the ways in which the books are similar? For me, the books all being so alike (especially the way wealthy families are in several novels) is not a pro. The two that stand out as different plot-wise are Weather and Fleishman is in Trouble.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m REALLY hoping to see How We Disappeared on the shortlist and would certainly be happy to see it win! It is an important story, handled very carefully and well.

      Thank you! I just got my longlist wrap-up posted and I did try to touch on thematic similarities I saw across the books. I think that some parallels can make for interesting reading with a prize list, especially if the books disagree or present different sides to a common theme, but in the whole I have to agree with you about this longlist’s similarities not really being a positive. There just isn’t enough variance this year, in my opinion. I think Fleishman is in Trouble has some similarities with a few other books on the list with its commentary on marriage and wealth, but Weather is the one I had a hard time grouping with others as far as thematic parallels, even though it does have a motherhood element as so many of the longlist books do.

      Liked by 1 person

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