Wednesday, May 1, 2019

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Published May 2019 by Hanover Square Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Singapore, 1942. As Japanese troops sweep down Malaysia and into Singapore, a village is ransacked, leaving only two survivors and one tiny child.

In a neighboring village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is strapped into the back of a troop carrier and shipped off to a Japanese military brothel where she is forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman.” After sixty years of silence, what she saw and experienced still haunts her.

In the year 2000, twelve-year-old Kevin is sitting beside his ailing grandmother when he overhears a mumbled confession. He sets out to discover the truth, wherever it might lead, setting in motion a chain of events he never could have foreseen.

Weaving together two time lines and two very big secrets, this stunning debut opens a window on a little-known period of history, revealing the strength and bravery shown by numerous women in the face of terrible cruelty. Drawing in part on her family’s experiences, Jing-Jing Lee has crafted a profoundly moving, unforgettable novel about human resilience, the bonds of family and the courage it takes to confront the past.

My Thoughts:
Yesterday, on Literary Quicksand, Allison wrote, in her review of this book: "Why do we read stories of unimaginable suffering? Why do we revisit the pain, heartache, and shame others experience in their darkest times?"

Why, indeed? Books like How We Disappear demand so much from the reader, are so painfully difficult to read. They are also so important for us to push our way through - we cannot allow ourselves to forget the past and the terrible things that mankind is capable of when left unchecked. In her debut novel, Lee writes about a part of history that was long kept quiet, the so-called comfort women the Japanese essentially kidnapped and abused for years during the occupation of China, Malay, and Singapore.

Wang Di is a teenager when her village is occupied by the Japanese and she is taken from her family and kept for three years in a small room she was rarely allowed to leave, where she "serviced" thirty or more men a day. After one year, I wasn't sure I could read any more of it, even knowing, as I did, that Wang Di would survive. It was beyond heartbreaking, knowing that this story was based on real events and that many of these young women didn't survive and those who did were ostracized once the occupation was over.

Lee keeps things from being entirely overwhelming by weaving together Wang Di's past and present, as well as the story of young Kevin. Poor Kevin has more than his share of sadness. Bullied at school and harassed by a neighbor boy, Kevin is having a hard enough time making his way through life. Once he hers his grandmother's confession, he is haunted by her past. The weaving together of his story and Wang Di's story is remarkably well done. While Wang Di's past is, of course, the most emotional of the story lines, her present story line as well as Kevin's are strong as well, something that doesn't always happen when authors try to use this device.

How We Disappear is an impressive debut - the settings are vivid, the pain palpable, the characters unforgettable. I loved the many ways Lee explored all of the ways her characters "disappeared," all of the ways people can disappear.

For other opinions about this book, check out the full tour at TLC Book Tours. Thanks to the ladies of TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour.

Jing-Jing Lee is the author of the novel, If I Could Tell You. Her poems have been published in Ceriph, Poetry Quarterly, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Moving Words 2011: A Poetry Anthology. Jing moved to Europe in her early 20s and started to pursue writing full-time. In 2011, she gained a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. She now lives in Amsterdam with her husband and is working on her second book of fiction. When she’s not working on her novel-in-progress or reading (or taking photographs), she can be found here and on twitter.


  1. I've read about the comfort women and the stories are harrowing. I doubt I can read this one.

  2. I have to be in the right state of mind for books like this. I usually end up watching the movie or a documentary on it instead if I can. Books like this are ones you can't finish in a couple of hours like a movie...I've heard a lot about this horrifying part of history but have never delved in. I hope I can read it one day. Great review.

  3. I read about this book. So emotional. Heart breaking.

  4. I think about that too, why do I read things that are going to leave me an emotional mess? I'm still not sure but I keep doing it because I know that what I'm feeling is nothing compared to the person in that moment. Even if it's fiction. :) Thank you for being on this tour. Sara @ TLC Book Tours