Wang Di is a disappointment to her parents. Why? Because she was born a girl instead of a boy. The name her parents gave here “Wang” meaning hope and “Di” meaning boy, a constant reminder of this disappointment every time somebody calls her name. Kevin is only twelve, well nearly thirteen and he is going blind. At the opticians he can’t even read the first letter on the chart. He has taken to making recordings of things since he knows his sight is deserting him. The cassette player was a gift from his grandmother. Showing him how to operate it after she had a stroke and told him that she would soon die. It is this cassette player that he uses to record a cryptic confession that his grandmother makes on her deathbed. It seems that his father may not have been his grandmother’s son at all. The confession is also a plea for forgiveness that his grandmother never found his real parents.
These are the two major characters of this novel and they are connected. Kevin tries to solve the puzzle that his grandmother has left him with unintentionally in the present. While Wang Di spends most of her time in the early years of World War 2. Most of the novel takes place in Singapore just after the successful invasion by the Japanese. Wang Di is captured by the Japanese and forced to serve the soldiers and officers as a “comfort woman”, a euphemism for prostitute, but prostitute is also a misleading description for these women because they are never actually payed. They think that money is being sent back to their families, but it is just a sham used to mitigate the horrible jobs they are forced to perform every day. This part of the novel is brutal, and life for these women was nothing short of a living nightmare. Then for the ones who survived, they returned home to be disowned, shamed, and labelled traitors. Wang Di’s parents can barely stand to look at her and only talk to her if it’s necessary.
Yes, this part of the novel is vicious and confronting to the reader, but it is also the best part of the book. How each woman uses different strategies to make it through each day, the friendship between Wang Di and Jeomsun and Huay. The wonderful character of Mrs Sato. Who turns out to have surprising depth. For me Wang Di and this part of the narrative is the strength of the book, and I believe it would have been a better book if Kevin had been left out of the narrative all together. At times it feels like his chapters are tacked on to fill out the narrative and add a puzzle about the identity of his real family that is not needed. There are times when Kevin’s chapters almost feel like interruptions and tear you away from the immersion that you feel with Wang Di’s chapters. I think that if Kevin was removed from the story this would have been a five star read for me, because I thoroughly enjoyed Wang Di’s story. Still having said that it is still an impressive debut. There are wars, and always will be, but what was done to these women are war crimes, and their story should never be hidden away in shame. This novel at least gives these women a voice and shines a light on the depraved acts, rape and torture that we can only hope will never happen again. 4 Stars.
Jing-Jing Lee is the author of HOW WE DISAPPEARED (Oneworld and Hanover Square Press, May 2019). Born and raised in Singapore, she graduated from Oxford’s Creative Writing Master’s in 2011 and has since seen her poetry and short stories published in various journals and anthologies. Lee's novella, If I Could Tell You, was published by Marshall Cavendish in 2013 and her debut poetry collection, And Other Rivers, was published by Math Paper Press in 2015.
There is an interview with Lee at historicalnovel society here - https://historicalnovelsociety.org/how-we-disappeared-an-interview-with-jing-jing-lee/