How We Disappeared
By Lee Jing-Jing
Oneworld/ Paperback/ 343 pages/ $24.48/ Published Thursday (April 4), pre-order at Books Kinokuniya
The word "crack" recurs throughout How We Disappeared, Singaporean writer Lee Jing-Jing's international debut novel.
A baby's wails crack through the air of an attap hut; a mother's face cracks into sobs, or her voice cracks like a whip.
Lee's novel, which treads through one of the darkest periods of Singapore's history, proceeds as if on a cracked surface: delicately, constantly bracing itself for the onslaught of anguish. It is peopled by those who have fallen through the cracks - the elderly, the needy, the wounded - and thus been rendered invisible.
Foremost among these figures is Wang Di, an elderly cardboard collector who was a former "comfort woman", enslaved in a Japanese military brothel in World War II.
Born a girl to a traditional Chinese family, she was regarded from day one not as her own person but as a signifier of other, better things to come. Her name in Chinese literally means "looking forward to a younger brother".
When the Japanese occupy Singapore in 1942, 17-year-old Wang Di is taken from her family, renamed Fujiko and imprisoned in a black-and-white bungalow with other girls. There, they are forced to sexually service Japanese soldiers every day.
In 2000, Wang Di is 75. Her husband, whom she called the Old One because of their 18-year age difference, has just died. She has had to leave the flat she shared with him for 40 years and move to a new estate, where the neighbours ostracise her because she collects cardboard for a living.
Wang Di struggled to tell her husband about what happened to her in the black-and-white house, just as she struggled to listen to the story of what happened to him during the war. Now, filled with regret at leaving these stories untold, she tries to learn about her husband's past.
The person with answers may be Kevin, a bespectacled 12-year-old who is bullied at school and whose parents, a swimming pool cleaner and shipping company secretary, worry about making ends meet.
Kevin's grandmother made a garbled confession to him on her deathbed. Now, armed with her old recorder and a limited grasp of Chinese, he sets out to untangle a decades-old mystery about a lost child and a horrific war crime.
This is an elegiac and at times extremely harrowing novel.
Lee has to depict sexual slavery in a way that is neither graphic nor exploitative, yet does not water down its dehumanising horror.
For those who survive, returning to society is another hell. Wang Di recounts the story of a girl who made her way home, only to have her parents "proclaim that they had never seen her, never known her or spoken her name in their lives".
The subject of the "comfort women" remains incendiary today, as South Korea continues to push for recognition and restitution for survivors while Japan maintains it has apologised enough.
How We Disappeared bears unflinching, vital testimony to war crimes that are still on the brink of living memory.
It also presents to the world a Singapore far removed from the glitz of Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians (2013), one of lonely elderly hoarders in rental flats, disappearing neighbourhoods, stories that trauma and shame have all but driven into the grave - and the kind of effort needed to preserve such difficult histories before they disappear.
If you liked this, read: White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht (Vintage, 2018, $16.68, Books Kinokuniya), about two sisters, Hana and Emi, who are haenyeo (Korean female divers of the sea). When Hana saves her younger sister from a Japanese soldier, she herself ends up transported to Manchuria and forced to work as a "comfort woman".