Book review: Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared is equal parts heartfelt and harrowing, tender and triumphant

Wang Di has a terrible secret, a hidden shame she has suppressed for more than fifty years. But in the year 2000, when her husband dies and takes with him a slew of secrets of his own, her lonely life becomes almost unbearable. Unwilling to hear his stories and unprepared to share her own until it is too late to do so, Wang Di’s wartime experiences come back to haunt her, in author Jing-Jing Lee‘s How We Disappeared.

Taken at 16 to become an egregiously euphemistically named ‘comfort woman’, Singapore native Wang Di is representative of thousands of women and girls snatched from their homes in occupied territories and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army. It’s a harrowing and shattering history, with years of rape and abuse often compounded by shame and isolation should the women ever make it home. Survivors still fight for recognition today – women in their nineties travelling Asia and demanding apologies from the Japanese government, even as onlookers hurl abuse and insults – while more still struggle to tell their children what happened, for fear of what it might do to their family.

Lee handles an emotionally fraught subject matter with real skill, combining graceful prose with harsh realities, and it’s testament to her outstanding character building that the elderly Wang Di is as interesting and beautifully crafted as the teenager. Wang Di is more than just her childhood experiences, and, in many ways, following the older woman is every bit as challenging as following the abused child. She can’t keep up with the world, finding herself isolated as much by changing technologies and her failing body as by the awful secrets of her past. Desperately trying to uncover the stories her husband wanted so much to tell her, and hoping someone will finally sit down hear her own, she finds herself out of her depth, and it is, quite frankly, heartbreaking.

Enter Kevin.

Twelve year old Kevin has terrible eyesight, he’s being bullied at school and, worst of all, his grandmother is sick. Before she passes away, she tells Kevin something huge. A monumental secret she has kept for many years, and a confession that will change his family forever. Armed with his trusty tape recorder, Kevin sets out to explore the story, hoping it will save his grieving father from the dark place he goes to when he’s sad. It’s a huge undertaking for a small, frightened boy, and it sets him on a path that will ultimately lead him to Wang Di, and the story she’s finally, at long last, bursting to tell.

How We Disappeared is an absolute joy to read – during its less gut-wrenching moments of course. I couldn’t stop turning the pages as I tried to fit together the narratives of Wang Di and Kevin’s grandmother, Lim Mui Joo, and when it all comes to a head, it is so triumphantly heartfelt that you’ll be hard pressed deciding whether you want to smile or cry (I personally settled for a gentle combination of both). Love, warmth, and gentle kindness bursts from the final chapters, and my heart is still skipping a beat every time I think about (minor spoiler) Kevin placing the tape recorder on the table and inviting Wang Di to tell her story.

There’s such universality to the themes here – hiding our pasts, a (justifiable or otherwise) fear of outside judgement, the realities of aging, all the things we wish we’d have said; it’s all here, framed by brutal war stories, and beautifully, painfully, and touchingly explored. An absolute blinder of a book. Add it to your wishlist immediately.

Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared is out now, available through Oneworld

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher/NetGalley in exchange for my review
View my review policies here

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