• Friday, October 29th, 2021

Jing-Jing Lee was born and raised in Singapore but presently lives with her husband and son in Amsterdam, Holland. She obtained a degree from the University of Oxford in 2011 and has a Master in Creative Writing.

How We Disappeared, published in 2019, is Jing-Jing Lee’s first novel. It was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown.

Set in Singapore in the period from the 1942 Japanese invasion to the new millennium, the story of How We Disappeared is not linear; it moves back and forth throughout the novel. It interlaces the two time periods and the two narrators, Wang Di and Kevin Lim, whose stories are connected to the World War Two turmoil as discovering their family ties – another twist by the author.

Wang Di’s story rotates around her teenage years and current days in her seventies. She was born to a humble working-class Chinese family living in a hamlet in Singapore. At the age of seventeen, she was taken by force and imprisoned by the Japanese army for three years, becoming a sex slave, known as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers and given the Japanese name: Fujiko.

At the end of the war, after three years of captivity, surviving food rationing, unhygienic life and dangerous venereal diseases transmitted by the Japanese soldiers, Wang Di returns to her family. As expected, she is no longer welcome and is made to feel a strong sense of shame. Even her brother, Meng, asks her coldly: “why did you come back” meaning why do you inflict this shame on us, your family? Furthermore, the villagers avoid her as a social outcast.

Wang Di’s feelings of guilt and shame will remain with her throughout her remaining life. She will keep this traumatic secret buried within her, never to resurface, never to be mentioned. Moreover, once married, she refuses to listen or share her husband’s harrowing experience during the war, when his whole family was massacred. However, after her husband’s demise, she feels guilty for her deeds and seeks to dig into and uncover his dire past during World War Two.

The second part of the story concerns Kevin Lim in the year 2000. He is a precocious, introverted, lonely present-day twelve-year-old bullied schoolboy who starts investigating his father’s past after hearing his grandmother, Ah Ma’s incoherent confession on her deathbed about a family secret. Kevin takes it upon himself to unearth the truth and unravel the history of the connection between his father and his grandmother.

Although the subject of “comfort women” is an essential part of the novel, the poignant rape scenes were too long and unnecessarily repetitive. They could have been shortened without altering the poignancy of the horror inflicted and without minimising the emotional torments or the criminal atrocity committed by the Japanese forces who occupied the country and even gave it the Japanese name of Syonan-to.

The novel is inspired by stories the author heard from relatives about what happened during the Japanese occupation of Singapore during the second world war. She says in an interview: “As with most Singaporeans, I learned what civilians went through during the Japanese occupation as I was growing up, some of it from stories that my relatives told in hushed, yet bitter voices, some of it from programmes, fictional and otherwise, on television”. As for a reason for her choice of subject, she says: “It bothered me that a people’s history could be left so easily to slip away in the wind. I’d never thought of myself as a historical novelist, nor someone who would spend years doing research, but there I was, inflamed by my anger about how little we seemed to matter to the rest of the world”.

It is a well-researched book, intense, sombre, profoundly touching and hard to read due to the heinous crimes described. The author successfully interweaves two timelines, her family’s stories and historical facts and fiction, to break the traumatic memory and silence caused by the Singaporeans’ feeling of humiliation, shame and guilt about this dark period in their history.

The novel’s dark subject describes the unveiled barbaric side of human nature and the execrable degree to which it can sink in times of war. Nevertheless, despite the painful solitude, ignominy and rejection by society that the victims endured and suffered, an optimistic side is illustrated by the resilience, love and redeeming potential of hope for a better future life.

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Category: Book Reviews
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