How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Published by Oneworld Publications, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This novel chronicles the life of Wang Di, an elderly woman reflecting on her struggles to survive when she was captured during WWII and forced into sexual slavery. Kept as a so-called ‘comfort woman’, she is one of many who suffered when Singapore was occupied by Japanese forces. Running in parallel, 12-year-old Kevin secretly explores his family’s past following a shocking confession made on his grandmother’s deathbed. Through the weaving together of these two stories and timelines, Jing-Jing Lee tells a powerful story of family, trauma, guilt, and the complex road to recovery.
In some instances, it can feel redundant to directly compare two separate books, but given their strikingly similar core setups, and the fact that both have been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it feels almost impossible not to contrast this with Edna O’Brien’s novel, Girl. Put simply, this achieves everything that Girl set out but failed to do. Where O’Brien’s narrative felt flat and lacked resonance, Lee’s is both harrowing and poignant; where Girl felt like a relentless succession of brutal events, How We Disappeared takes time to let its emotional beats land; and where Girl failed to properly explore the long-term mental ramifications of captivity, and the post-war stigma faced by those forced into sexual servitude, this novel explores both with aplomb.
This also lacks the arguably problematic authorship that hindered Girl: where O’Brien is a white, Irish author writing about the experiences of Nigerians from an entirely removed perspective, Lee was born and raised in Singapore, and has drawn in part from her own family history to craft her book’s narrative. While there are undoubtedly upsetting moments throughout, the trauma feels raw, honest, and earned, never dipping into needless exploitation or gratuity. Lee’s prose and pacing also do well to evoke a strong sense of time and place, particularly in the sections detailing Wang Di’s past.
For the vast bulk of the novel, Lee does a great job of bringing disparate characters and timelines increasingly together. It’s a shame then that the novel indulges in a couple of info dumps at the final hour; the finding of historical documents (letters and audio recordings) feeling like an all too convenient device to quickly fill in any gaps in the narrative. It’s for this reason that I docked a star, but I must say I was still satisfied by the skilful way in which the author ultimately brought everything together on a thematic level.
Books documenting the impact of WWII aren’t exactly new, but Lee shines a light on a too-often overlooked aspect of the conflict. By showing the impossible moral decisions people were forced to make in order to survive, the deep-rooted shame felt by those survivors, and the prejudice they had to endure long after the bombs stopped falling, we gain a deeper understanding of why so many people still feel compelled to bury the past. Above all else, she explores the redemption that can come from speaking the truth, allowing yourself to be forgiven, and finding a sense of family.
You can pick up a copy of How We Disappeared from Book Depository by clicking here.
WOMEN’S PRIZE 2020 REVIEWS SO FAR: