How We Disappeared
In the early 1940s, Wang Di, a teenager from the village of Hougang in Singapore, worries about her family’s poverty and their inability to send her, a girl, to school, though her two younger brothers receive the benefit of an education. She is busy with helping her mother and selling vegetables and eggs in the local market. Neither she nor anyone else is concerned about the war; they are certain that the British will repel the Japanese forces.
When the British surrender and the Japanese begin their occupation of Singapore, renamed Syonan-to, the people of the island learn deference to the soldiers, hoping to remain invisible through their deep bows, though this doesn’t keep them from looting their homes and kidnapping their people. One day, a group of soldiers arrives in Hougang and takes Wang Di and other women from the village, including the mother of a newborn baby and a girl a year younger than Wang Di, to serve as comfort women for the Japanese troops. Kept captive for over two years, the women are subjected to unspeakable horrors. Once the war is over, Wang Di vows never to speak of her time there.
Nearly sixty years later, twelve-year-old Kevin Lim, bullied and isolated by his classmates, is pulled out of school when his grandmother, already in the hospital, has a third stroke. Sitting by her bedside, she mistakes him for his father and gives a garbled confession, asking for forgiveness. Kevin is compelled to untangle the mystery behind his grandmother’s secret.
Kevin and Wang Di’s stories entwine in unexpected and poignant ways, showing how the past ripples into the present and demonstrating that silence is not a shield but a self-inflicted wound.
Although How We Disappeared got off to a slow start for me, I ended up very appreciative for having read it. I did not know about the Japanese occupation of Singapore, and this story offers a window into the tragedy, especially as experienced by the Chinese population. Also, I was not aware of the daily lives of the comfort women, and as horrible as it was to read about what they endured, I was glad to know what happened to them during the war.
As is obvious from the title, the book deals with the theme of disappearance, and seeing the myriad ways not just how characters make themselves disappear but how others can also make one invisible was engrossing and almost overwhelming. Each character must come to terms with how they have disappeared and have varying degrees of success reanimating themselves.
Emotionally, the section that resonated with me most was when Wang Di returned to her family after the war and had to reintegrate with regular life after being a captive comfort woman. The twin faces of shame and shunning spiral around Wang Di.
While I found very little at fault with How to Disappear, I wondered if Kevin was represented as too mature for his age. When he was first introduced, in fact, I read him as rather naive, so I was surprised to find him so enterprising and sensitive as he pursued his investigation. Kevin’s father was a key figure in his life and had bouts of depression, or going to the “Dark Place.” These were tantalizing hints of his character, but I wish they had been more developed.
In terms of style, for the most part, I found the writing lovely, and clear, though I noticed two patterns that I thought detracted from the narrative. First, Lee frequently introduced things in what to me was a strange order. For example, she often gave a summary statement of an event, went back to describe how the event came about, and then repeated the summary. It had the effect of jumbling the timeline a bit in my mind. Secondly, she would include a sentence and then instead of including modifying phrases, those phrases would follow in incomplete sentences. This is a common technique among fiction writers; in this case, I just thought it was a bit overused, in such a way that it drew attention to itself.
Overall, though, How to Disappear is an excellent and worthy novel that should be on the reading list of those who enjoy literary fiction, historical fiction, and reading about women’s perseverance. I definitely recommend it.
Thank you to NetGalley and Hanover Square Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.