How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – Book Review

A massive thank you to Oneworld Publications who kindly sent an advance copy of How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee to me – it is published in hardback on 2 May 2019. Here is my review:

How We Disappeared is a shattering, tender and absorbing novel that centres around the unfathomable cruelty that women in Singapore endured when they were snatched by the Japanese Army and forced into sexual slavery during World War Two. It was harrowing to read of Wang Di’s incarceration as a ‘comfort woman’ – far too benign a description for the barbarism that many thousands of women endured across the occupied territories – yet what rings out from the book is human resilience and our capacity to love no matter how damaged we might be.

Not only do we hear from young Wang Di, age just 16 when she is ripped away from her family and locked into the tiny room of her prison, but elderly Wang Di has her own chapters too. Grieving her husband, affectionately known as the ‘Old One, it transpires that neither of them, though traumatised by their experiences during the occupation, have ever shared with one another what really happened to them both. For Wang Di, this is down to the shame that attached to women who had been forced into sexual slavery; their treatment, once released, included being shunned and called traitors. In the aftermath of her husband’s death, Wang Di sets out to discover what he went through during the war.

The third voice in the book belongs to the enchanting teenager Kevin. With his bottle-top glasses and his tape recorder, he starts to unearth a secret that his late grandmother had been keeping for decades. As Wang Di and Kevin set out on their individual quests to uncover the truth, the tension builds while we wait to find out whether their worlds will collide.

The final chapters are suffused with kindness, the power of talking, love. Indeed they are so moving that I read them through a blur of tears.

Meticulously researched, exquisitely written, with characters that will live and breathe in your hearts long after you finish the last page, How We Disappeared is a worthy testament to the women who were forced to become ‘comfort women.’ Not only does Jing-Jing Lee capture the horror of it all, but also the hope. I’m reeling from its power – what an absolute triumph.

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