Categories: Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
How We Disappeared tells the story of Wang Di, an old woman from Singapore who’s just lost her husband before she told him her story of the war and listened to his own. Trying to find out the truth is much harder now that the war is long over and so many people are dead or missing. Her own story hurts too much and she tries to not think about it if she can – she’s never told her husband she was a “comfort woman”. On the other side of the town, Kevin finds out his grandmother found his father when he was a baby and never gave him back to the biological father she later found out still lived.
This was not one of the longlisted books for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction I was most looking forward to, but it was a nice surprise to read it. The story of the women that the Japanese kidnapped, and forced to be raped dozens of times a day, to perform and sing to entertain soldiers, to be tortured and humiliated, only later to be rejected by their own families if they even survived… it’s not told enough. I sighed when I saw yet another World War II story in the longlist, but I think this one is worth it and brings something new.
As many books telling stories of people dealing with their traumas from war, this is told in a non-linear manner, from Wang Di’s point of view in the present, Kevin’s point of view in the present and Wang Di’s point of view from 1941 to 1946. At first I found it a little confusing and frustrating, but later on it occurred to me that the format actually suits the book well – it builds up tension and helps set the reader for a few twists in the story that kept me turning pages.
This is not an easy read at all, obviously. Wang Di’s life isn’t easy from the start, and it goes a thousand times worse very quickly, but it did not feel to me that the suffering she went through was used gratuitously in the story, and I was grateful that the author told those stories with sensitivity, those horrors a part of the story of those women, but not who they are, not their full story. Their suffering felt personal and their dreams and personalities shone through. Of course, I cannot speak for the authenticity of the story, but it felt very true.
There was something missing a little from the writing, it felt a little choppy at times and it did not convey the full impact of the emotional scenes, which sometimes suited me well, because it turned those awful things happening to them into something I could continue to read – I’m sensitive to violent scenes, so this slight detachment from the writer was a mercy. I also felt that there were a few too many stories being told: Wang Di’s, her husband’s, Kevin’s, his Ah Ma’s… I wish there had been maybe one storyline less, because some of them were a bit rushed, especially Wang Di’s husband’s story.
I really enjoyed this book, I think it stands strong as part WWII historical fiction and part mystery contemporary. It left a strong impact on me, especially as World War II stories are always focused on the Western countries, it felt new to read the story of the Asian part of the war. As a Women’s Prize contender it’s harder to judge, because it did not feel to me that was a strong literary work, but I will have to read the other books before making a final judgment on it.