Review

Review: Gripping tale of war, comfort women and sisterhood

White Chrysanthemum (above), by Mary Lynn Bracht (left), looks at injustices dealt out to women during wartime.
White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht (above), looks at injustices dealt out to women during wartime.PHOTO: TIM HALL, CHATTO AND WINDUS

FICTION

WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM

Mary Lynn Bracht

Chatto and Windus/Paperback/ 311 pages/Books Kinokuniya/$27.95

Rating: 4/5


As haenyeo (female divers of the sea), sisters Hana and Emi are descendants of a proud Korean tradition that has gifted them with a rare strength and independence even in the tumultuous 1940s, when their country was occupied by the Japanese.

But when Hana saves her younger sister from the clutches of a Japanese soldier one day, only to be transported to Manchuria and forced into becoming a "comfort woman" in a military brothel, the two girls are brutally separated and left to wrest with the throes of history on their own.

White Chrysanthemum (above), by Mary Lynn Bracht (left), looks at injustices dealt out to women during wartime.
White Chrysanthemum (above), by Mary Lynn Bracht, looks at injustices dealt out to women during wartime. PHOTO: TIM HALL, CHATTO AND WINDUS

Hana tries to fight her way out of sexual slavery; Emi, racked by the guilt and shame of her hand in her sister's fate, represses the trauma of her family's pain during the occupation and subsequent Korean War until 2015, when Japan's prime minister accepted "deep responsibility" for the issue of comfort women after a landmark agreement with the South Korean government.

In this searing novel, Mary Lynn Bracht casts an unflinching eye at the injustices that were dealt out to women who ended up on the wrong side of history during wartime and weaves their experiences into a startlingly powerful tale of redemption.

The comfort women issue, as she powerfully drives home in this novel, had been unfairly locked away for almost half a century. And it was only in 1992, when a Dutch woman joined comfort women survivors in telling her story, that the Western world began to take notice.

The book is a gripping read, with the plot - alternating between Hana's no-holds-barred account of the humiliation and violence of her abduction, and a modern-day Emi seeking a reunion with her elder sister - developing at an exhilarating pace that culminates in a moving and unexpected resolution.

While Bracht includes a disclaimer that the book may contain historical inaccuracies, it is generally well-researched.

Her prose, elegant and composed, brings to life the horror and oppression that had confronted her protagonists during the war and its aftermath in stark detail.

At times, her treatment of the matter is even cast with a macabre brand of humour.

The first time that a group of comfort women expresses any form of solidarity, for example, is when one of them murders a Japanese soldier who had threatened to kill her. The writer proceeds to comment on how his dead body, buried away in their vegetable garden, had given way to a bountiful harvest of crops that year.

By counterpointing both sisters' experiences and weaving them into a yarn that links the traumatic past to the difficulty of seeking redress for the oppressed in the present, Bracht manages to raise her work beyond historical documentation into a tale that interrogates the very nature of how we remember history.

If you like this, read: Daughters Of The Dragon by William Andrews (Lake Union Press, 2016, $22.20, Books Kinokuniya), which chronicles a Korean-American woman's search for her birth mother, a former comfort woman.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2018, with the headline 'Gripping tale of war, comfort women and sisterhood'. Print Edition | Subscribe