Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

How We Disappeared – Jing-Jing Lee (Hanover Square Press, 2019)

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!)

15 thoughts on “Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee”

  1. Great review! I totally agree that Wang Di’s perspective was stronger than Kevin’s. It’s a shame this one didn’t make it to the shortlist for the Women’s Prize. It seems to have proven one of the longlist’s most popular and impactful titles.

    1. Yes, it seems like such a great candidate for the Women’s Prize, especially given that it shines a light on a lesser known part of history that involves women. I know people weren’t overall impressed with the longlist but I liked this one quite a bit.

  2. I am waiting for this book at the library … so who knows when I’ll get it! I have been looking forward to reading this book for a long, long time, though!

    1. It’s really good! I ended up buying it new because I really wanted to read it and knew I’d be waiting for the library a long time!

  3. Thanks for linking to my post! 🙂 Great review, I agree that Kevin’s part wasn’t as engaging as Wang Di’s and admittedly I found myself skimming some paragraphs there to get to Wang Di’s history faster. But overall it was a great read—historically accurate and compassionate. It really is a shame this didn’t get shortlisted.

  4. This sounds like a really fascinating book-it never ceases to amaze me how many new ‘stories’ we can get from the world wars-there are never-ending numbers of perspectives, people were victimized in so many unimaginable ways, it’s horrible, but we’re lucky we are still able to learn from these traumatic events.

    1. It is sort of horrible to realize that there are endless ways in which people abuse each other. I was somewhat aware of this part of world war II history so it wasn’t entirely shocking but still hard to read in parts. I’m glad this stories in particular are being told because many of these women bore so much shame for what had happened to them, even after they were freed, and many were seen as complicit with what was done to them.

  5. Great review, and thanks for the link! 🙂 I liked Kevin a bit more than most seem to, but agree wholeheartedly that Wang Di is the heart of the story. I really appreciated seeing a different aspect of WWII here than a lot of fiction focuses on; I’m glad to see you felt the same! It really was a shame this one didn’t advance with the Women’s Prize.

    1. There’s lots on the longlist I haven’t read but I really think this book (and Ducks, Newburyport) have so many elements that uniquely focus on women’s experience that they deserve to have advanced!

  6. The other night in book club we were talking about a character who is beaten by her husband one night and how she never told her daughter, even though it’s been years and the daughter is now an adult. One book club member noted that it was ridiculous to not tell anyone that she was beaten and couldn’t seem to get the secrecy. Another person pointed out shame, and I feel like what you’re saying about the character in this novel is that shame can last a lifetime. In fact, I don’t know how women recover from the shame of abuse. Being told “it’s not your fault” seems unlikely to work because it’s deeper than that.

    1. Yes, there seems to often be an added element to abuse of this type or domestic abuse like you’re referring to because there’s very often this idea that the victim should have fought back or just left when it’s always much, much more complicated than that. And it’s apparent that trauma that can’t be talked about and shared is trauma that can’t be moved through and is really hard to recover from.

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