How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – Book Review

Title: How We Disappeared (review copy)

Author: Jing-Jing Lee

Genre/Themes: Historical Fiction, Dual Timelines, Asia-Pacific, Japanese Occupation of Singapore, World War II, Human Trafficking, Sex Slavery, Rape, Physical and Emotional Abuse, Victim Shaming, Family Saga

Blurb from Goodreads

Singapore, 1942. As Japanese troops sweep down Malaysia and into Singapore, a village is ransacked, leaving only two survivors and one tiny child.

In a neighbouring village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is bundled into the back of a troop carrier and shipped off to a Japanese military brothel where she is forced into sexual slavery. After sixty years of silence, what she saw and experienced there still haunts her present.

In the year 2000, twelve-year-old Kevin is determined to find out the truth – wherever it might lead – after his grandmother makes a surprising confession on her deathbed, one she never meant Kevin to hear, setting in motion a chain of events he could never have foreseen.

Weaving together two timelines and two very big secrets, this stunning debut opens a window on a little-known period of history, revealing the strength and bravery shown by numerous women in the face of terrible cruelty. A profoundly moving novel, it is based partly on the author’s great-grandfather’s experiences.

My Review

How We Disappeared is a historical fiction novel that tells the story of what happened to one woman in particular during the Asia-Pacific part of WWII.

It follows seventeen year old Wang Di who is ripped from her family and forced into sex slavery to become what was crudely referred to as a comfort woman.

The book splits the narrative between life for Wang Di during her captivity and life for her sixty years later as an old woman who is dealing with the ghosts of both hers and her recently deceased husband’s past during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.

The book also introduces us to a young boy named Kevin whose grandmother revealed a secret that she had held since the occupation to him on her deathbed and his chapters focus on him researching her past and trying to right the wrong that she had committed.

I do enjoy historical fiction as it really helps to educate and inform about times past and brings history to life. I had never heard of the phrase “comfort women” before this book and reading about the sexual barbarity that these innocent women were subjected to during their captivity was deeply moving. It was also so deeply horrifying to see the shame that was then placed on these innocent rape victims by society as if they were somehow the criminals and at fault for being raped.

And I must say that Wang Di’s captivity and her friendships with the other enslaved women was written in a most sensitive and thought provoking fashion that made me feel heavily invested in Wang Di’s story and her survival against the odds. These women lived in the most horrific of environments which were laid bare for the reader to see. They suffered cruel beatings and violent rapes at the hands of the soldiers daily and were not given any freedom as they were locked into their rooms. They were barely able to communicate with each other in communal areas such as the washroom as they were constantly guarded. The women were malnourished surviving on less than the bare minimum, and were denied basic medical care. In fact if they got ill it was considered easier to murder them than cure them. The chapters focusing on Wang Di as an old woman were made all the more haunting because of the effectiveness of the writing of surrounding the story of her younger self.

However, I really failed to connect with the chapters that focused on Kevin’s part of the story. I found them to be lacking in emotional depth and frankly rather boring. And therefore to me this part of the story detracted from highlighting the events surrounding the slavery of the “comfort women”. Kevin just seemed to be used as a plot device rather than feel like a character with a living, breathing personality. He was just described as bookish, quiet, awkward etc without being truly rounded out into a character whose motivations I could empathise with.

Overall, this was a novel that was easy to read as the writing was incredibly accessible but was let down by the more contemporary aspect to the storyline.

*An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

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4 thoughts on “How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – Book Review

  1. It sounds like something I have read before but I just can’t place it! I am keen to read this one even if Kevin lacks. Dang, Kevin! Great review as always, Emer.

    Liked by 1 person

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