The unbearably sad story of a young woman violated by war
Fiction: How We Disappeared
OneWorld, hardback, 352pages, €20.99
Wang Di's father and mother didn't want their first child to be a girl. Her very name testifies to her parents' disappointment.
It means "hope" or "to look forward to" (Wang) and "a little brother" (Di). As this novel begins in 1941, with Singapore under threat from Japanese troops, she is 16, and the village matchmaker has come round to urge her suitability for marriage. Wang Di's father thinks she is too young to marry. He's confident that the British colony, as Singapore was at the time, will hold firm against Japan.
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It's not to be. Japanese troops occupied Singapore in 1942, renaming it Syonan-to and putting the clocks forward an hour to sync with Tokyo time. Wang Di's parents face the situation with a "stoicism that they had picked up from having spent their youths living from one disaster, economic or natural, to another."
Some predict it will simply mean a change of ruler, but the brutality of the Japanese invaders quickly becomes apparent. Men are rounded up and shot. People who don't bow low enough to the soldiers are beaten, or worse. Most significantly for Wang Di, young women either rush to get married or else start dressing like boys in trousers and oversized shirts, cutting off their ponytails and binding their chests "to hide their curves".
The suddenly urgent need to see their daughter married off comes too late. One day, Wang Di is taken away by soldiers. At a black and white house miles from home, she is renamed Fujiko and forced to work as a so-called "comfort woman" for Japanese troops. The first time it happens, she feels "hollow and strangely weightless, as if I didn't exist". Then the next soldier comes in, and it happens again. Soon she stops counting. The soldiers become "one faceless, nameless beast - all body and inhuman noise".
That, she learns, is what they do with new girls, lining up to "break her in like a new pair of shoes". Wang Di has never been away from her family, even for a night, and clings on to the longing for release. After a month, she stops hoping. She has to serve up to 30 men a day, and more on weekends and festival days, and learns to smile at them to avoid "the threat of a fist or a boot... To keep alive, I made no noise, did nothing and tried not to exist".
Interwoven with the harrowing account of the young woman's three years of sexual servitude are two further strands of story. In the year 2000, Wang Di, now an old woman, faces widowhood after the death of a husband she calls the Old One, who carried his own traumatic memories of the war. Meanwhile, a young boy called Kevin is the only witness to a death bed confession from his grandmother that she took a child, his father, from its parents during the war, and he begins to dig back into the past to discover the truth.
As in all novels with a split narrative, the three storylines are inevitably uneven. Kevin's quest to get to the bottom of his family history is engaging, and the vignettes from Wang Di's old age are touching; but it is the young woman's wartime experience which gives How We Disappeared its raw power.
In the black and white house, Wang Di feels ashamed for not killing herself, fearing that she "would not be able to look my mother or father in the eyes again". She decides that, if she ever does get home, she will tell them that she was put to work in a factory. "I would lie to myself first," she notes, "then to everyone else after." The only humanity comes from the other young women. They're warned not to get sick or pregnant, but one by one, as time goes on and rations diminish, the girls fall sick, grow thin, faded, becoming little more than "a collection of cuts and bones and bruises, badly healed". This, Wang Di realises, is "how we're going to disappear". Even her eventual release, after the defeat of the Japanese, brings little relief. She returns home, but the house smells of "male bodies and their sweat and dark, sweet breaths, all of it sharpened by the heat".
She understands why some girls chose never to return home at all. There's too much social shame, and no one wants to talk about what happened to them. She's told that she must forget the life she led, the girls she was with, the ones who didn't make it. Daughters, it seems, will always be "useless, disposable".
This is the first novel by poet Jing-Jing Lee, and it's as beautifully written as one would expect. Born and raised in Singapore, the book draws heavily on her own family's past, and she thanks her parents in the acknowledgements for "generously" allowing her to draw on that painful history. On page after page, there are insights and observations which catch the reader short, as when, lying in the dark during the war after the soldiers have finished with her, she tries to remembers "the things I used to say in my past life, as a daughter, someone's child", but senses that there is not enough of her left, "the way a body burns and leaves nothing recognisable in its wake. Just a few shards of bone, ash".
It also details brilliantly how the deficiencies of the past pass down through the generations. Decades on, these people still refuse to speak to each other about the things that matter, retreating behind small talk about the weather and the saltiness of the food.
In a way, though, the brilliance of the writing almost makes it harder to bear. It's powerful and profound, but it's possible to love a novel and still never want to read it again, because it's too upsetting. This is one of those books.