THE PLOT: ‘How We Disappeared’ by Jing-Jing Lee is historical fiction set in Singapore. Alternating between two timelines: the Japanese invasion of the island in 1942 and an old woman in the year 2000, the book documents the atrocities committed towards the end of WWII. In 1942, Wang Di – a young girl of Chinese heritage – is stolen by Japanese troops and forced into a brothel. In 2000, she refuses to talk about the experience (still haunted by her memories) when a 12-year-old boy sets out to find the truth.
RATING: Five stars. This is a profoundly moving novel which will stay with me for a long time. The history of Singapore during WWII and the “comfort women” stolen from their homes is new to me, but sadly the sex-trafficking and rape of women during war is a tale as old as time. This novel is a fitting testament to their experiences and the experiences of all women who have been brutalised in the name of conquest. It seamlessly weaves together the historical details with an engaging plot and realistic characters that makes it even more heart-breaking. It’s a masterful debut which I would urge historical fiction lovers to read.
GOOD BITS: The subject-matter of this novel is incredible and I feel humbled to have learned more about WWII from the point-of-view of events in the Asia-Pacific. But moving that aside, the crafting of this novel blew me away. As an aspiring writer myself, I’m incredibly impressed by the scope, the plotting and how the timelines balance. Although told in 3rd person, past-tense, there are three POVs and the narration is very close so you get to know each of the characters intimately (I’d argue that “young Wang Di” and “old Wang Di” are different POVs). It’s really a lesson in how to write a good book.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I wanted to race through the timeline in the year 2000 so I could get back to the historical bits during WWII. This isn’t a problem as it shows that I was anticipating events and desperate to know more. It also helped that each chapter in the year 2000 was quite short. However, I think this exemplifies the age-old problem of having dual timelines or multiple POVs – readers will always prefer one and the other might feel like a chore. Additionally, I felt the 12-year-old’s voice and actions were a bit too old towards the end, which made it feel slightly unbelievable.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee and ‘The Mountains Sing’ by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. However, any fan of historical fiction, dual timelines and family narratives will fall in love with this book. Just please buy it now!
You can now buy it from my bookshop.org list here: https://uk.bookshop.org/a/11336/9781786075956