This is a story that takes place in three parts. In one part (what I would argue is the heart of the novel) We follow Wang Di through the years of World War Two, a young woman living in Singapore with her family. Her family is of Chinese heritage, barely scraping by, when Singapore is taken over by the Japanese in 1941. When the soldiers arrive in her village, Wang Di, along with other women, are taken into captivity as sex slaves. Euphemistically known as “comfort women” this is a true and horrible part of history and we follow the next three years of Wang Di’s life in her imprisonment. While not gratuitous there are definitely some hard to read sections here.
In the second section, we follow Wang Di as an old woman. Her husband of many years has recently died and she has been forced to move from their shared apartment. She knows that her husband suffered during the war as well and is filled with regret that she didn’t hear more of his story when she had the chance. She has lived through the intervening years largely hiding her past, which is still seen as shameful to many.
The third section features Kevin, a rather eccentric teenager. He’s developed a habit of recording everything around him with a tape recorder after his grandmother dies. Having recorded her final words, he sets out to discover exactly what it is that she asked forgiveness for.
These three sections obviously intertwine though the exact point of connection between Kevin’s story and Wang Di’s wasn’t clear to me until closer to the end and I appreciated that it wasn’t what I initially expected. I found Wang Di’s story the most interesting, particularly her experience as a young woman. At the same time, her experience as an older woman was a unique perspective, showing how trauma and secrets follow a person throughout their life and are not easily shaken, effecting every relationship that follows.
Kevin’s section, on the other hand, found me less engaged. Kevin never quite solidified as a real person for me and neither did his parents. I wanted to figure out Kevin’s connection to Wang Di but I didn’t care much about his story.
There are a lot of World War Two books out there but How We Disappeared shines a light on an aspect of the war that has not been the focus of very many. While the book is fiction, it reflects the stories of real women, many who sadly lived in shame for years due to the abuse they suffered. Jing-Jing Lee’s book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize this year and I read it after reading reviews from several other book bloggers. Lots of great reviews of this one from Emily, Rachel, Naty, Callum, and Gilana. (If you reviewed this one too and I missed you, please let me know!)