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.
In 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