A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel set in World War II Singapore about a woman who survived the Japanese occupation and a man who thought he had lost everything—for fans of Pachinko and We Were the Lucky Ones
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 neighboring village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is strapped into the back of a troop carrier and shipped off to a Japanese military brothel where she is forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman.” After sixty years of silence, what she saw and experienced still haunts her.
In the year 2000, twelve-year-old Kevin is sitting beside his ailing grandmother when he overhears a mumbled confession. He sets out to discover the truth, wherever it might lead, setting in motion a chain of events he never could have foreseen.
Weaving together two time lines 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. Drawing in part on her family’s experiences, Jing-Jing Lee has crafted a profoundly moving, unforgettable novel about human resilience, the bonds of family and the courage it takes to confront the past.
|Publisher:||Hanover Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Jing-Jing Lee was born and raised in Singapore. She earned a master's degree in creative writing from Oxford in 2011 and has since seen her poetry and short stories published in various journals and anthologies. How We Disappeared is her first novel. She currently lives in Amsterdam.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
How We Disappeared is a beautiful, heartbreaking historical fiction novel with an element of mystery. There are several different story lines woven together with different point-of-view characters, but the strongest part of the novel while, also perhaps being the most difficult to read, was Wang Di's experience. Wang Di is taken from her family during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as an innocuously named "comfort woman." Jing-Jing Lee's writing is beautiful and the character of Wang Di brings a personality to a very real tragedy that could otherwise feel quite distant and abstract in today's day and age. Despite the plethora of WWII historical fiction, there seem to be comparatively few novels which acknowledge the horrific abuse which "comfort women" suffered, much less the lack of understanding these women would have received from their fellow countrymen after the war. Despite the reality that this was a situation of sexual slavery, Wang Di knows that she cannot expect sympathy, and people will treat her as if she consented and, in doing so, betrayed her country to the Japanese invaders. Lee has portrayed that heartbreak and internalization of shame flawlessly. While Wang Di's story was much more dramatic, 12-year-old Kevin definitely won me over as well. His grandmother's deathbed confession turns his understanding of his family upside-down, and he is determined to solve the mystery without the aid of his father. While his story isn't exactly lighthearted, it definitely provides a counter balance to Wang Di's much darker storyline and feels like an adventure. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed How We Disappeared, and definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction. I've seen it recommended to fans of Pachinko several times, and while I understand the comparison, I do think How We Disappeared has much better pacing (and it's also about 150 pages shorter.) Jing-Jing Lee has brought an under-represented bit of history to life in this novel. My thanks to the publisher for providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
The two protagonists are Wang Di, a teenager when the book opens, who lives in one of the surrounding villages of Singapore as the Japanese raid the areas during WWII, and twelve- year-old student Kevin who lives in Singapore in the year 2000. These seemingly unconnected characters become acquainted 60 years after the war as the novel slowly connects their bonds and reveals family secrets kept hidden for decades. Wang Di eventually marries, moves to Singapore, and is widowed there. Kevin, a child bullied in school lives in Singapore amid family pathos. His dying grandmother reveals a secret to him; thus, we are drawn into intrigue as Kevin begins reading old letters she wrote, kept, but never mailed for decades. Jing-Jing Lee beautifully unfolds the protagonists’ backgrounds with suspense, painful flashbacks, and gut disturbing episodes they experienced. Primary and secondary characters are rounded and dynamically well developed. For readers who enjoy historical fiction, strong women characters, intrigue, family sagas, and learning about world cultures, this book is calling your name. Love, shame, forgiveness, agony and tortuous decisions are enveloped in the intricately woven plots of Wang Di and Kevin. The blooming friendship of the elderly woman and the young child is touching and life altering for both. You may question the ending but it is, indeed, satisfying. Kudos to Jing-Jing Lee! Quite an exquisite novel!
In the early 1940s, Wang Di, a teenager from the village of Hougang in Singapore, worries about her family’s poverty and their inability to send her, a girl, to school, though her two younger brothers receive the benefit of an education. She is busy with helping her mother and selling vegetables and eggs in the local market. Neither she nor anyone else is concerned about the war; they are certain that the British will repel the Japanese forces. When the British surrender and the Japanese begin their occupation of Singapore, renamed Syonan-to, the people of the island learn deference to the soldiers, hoping to remain invisible through their deep bows, though this doesn’t keep them from looting their homes and kidnapping their people. One day, a group of soldiers arrives in Hougang and takes Wang Di and other women from the village, including the mother of a newborn baby and a girl a year younger than Wang Di, to serve as comfort women for the Japanese troops. Kept captive for over two years, the women are subjected to unspeakable horrors. Once the war is over, Wang Di vows never to speak of her time there. Nearly sixty years later, twelve-year-old Kevin Lim, bullied and isolated by his classmates, is pulled out of school when his grandmother, already in the hospital, has a third stroke. Sitting by her bedside, she mistakes him for his father and gives a garbled confession, asking for forgiveness. Kevin is compelled to untangle the mystery behind his grandmother’s secret. Kevin and Wang Di’s stories entwine in unexpected and poignant ways, showing how the past ripples into the present and demonstrating that silence is not a shield but a self-inflicted wound. Although the book got off to a slow start for me, I ended up very appreciative for having read it. I did not know about the Japanese occupation of Singapore, and this story offers a window into the tragedy, especially as experienced by the Chinese population. Also, I was not aware of the daily lives of the comfort women, and as horrible as it was to read about what they endured, I was glad to know what happened to them during the war. As is obvious from the title, the book deals with the theme of disappearance, and seeing the myriad ways not just how characters make themselves disappear but how others can also make one invisible was engrossing and almost overwhelming. Each character must come to terms with how they have disappeared and have varying degrees of success reanimating themselves. Emotionally, the section that resonated with me most was when Wang Di returned to her family after the war and had to reintegrate with regular life after being a captive comfort woman. The twin faces of shame and shunning spiral around Wang Di. While I found very little at fault with How to Disappear, I wondered if Kevin was represented as too mature for his age. When he was first introduced, in fact, I read him as rather naive, so I was surprised to find him so enterprising and sensitive as he pursued his investigation. Kevin’s father was a key figure in his life and had bouts of depression, or going to the “Dark Place.” These were tantalizing hints of his character, but I wish they had been more developed. In terms of style, for the most part, I found the writing lovely, and clear, though I noticed two patterns that I thought detracted from the narrative. First, Lee frequently introduced things in what to me was a strange order. For example, she often gave a summary statement of an eve
"How we disappeared" is a beautiful and heart-breaking debut novel centered around seventeen-year-old Wang Di. During World War II, when Japanese army occupied Singapore, Wang Di was forced into sex slavery as a “comfort woman" for many years. After sixty years of silence, her past still haunts her. Shifting between two perspectives and dual timeline, there is the story of Wang Di and, on the other hand, we follow Kevin's life and his search to discover the truth. I personally enjoyed the main plot around Wang Di - I could feel her tragic experiences and her feelings of sorrow and hopelessness. Jing-Jing Lee handles well the difficult realities (trigger warnings for sexual abuse) in that period of time with a genuine and evocative writing. Though I found quite interesting the plot about Kevin, some parts of the book were dragged. There are some similarities between Singapore and Korean occupation by Japanese troops in WWII and I appreciate that the author could explore the reality on Singaporean's POV. I recommend this historical fiction if you want to learn more about Singapore's history during WWII. [I received an ARC from Hanover Square Press in exchange for an honest review]