How We Disappeared

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 27 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

This sprawling epic talks about the Japanese occupation of Singapore during WW II and its repercussions which affect families until this day. I applaud Jing-Jing Lee for illustrating that history is never really over and how important it is to be able to tell one's own story in order to see oneself and to feel seen: To share and discuss what has happened in the past can free individual people, families and whole societies.

Jing-Jing Lee has woven a net of stories about a family that experiences hardship, loss and trauma due to the occupation of Singapore 1942-45. One main focus lies on Wang Di who is abducted from her parents and forced to work as a prostitute serving Japanese soldiers; another main thread is set in the 21st century and introduces us to Kevin who tries to uncover the secrets of his grandmother - the story is propelled forward by the question how the stories of Wang Di and Kevin might be connected, and while trying to figure that out, we are jumping between timelines and meeting their parents and other family members, thus hearing about various destinies marked by historical events while they where happening and long afterwards.

While many of the grown-ups struggle to suppress their own memories, try to silence the victims or can't find a way to face what has happened to them due to severe trauma, 12-year-old Kevin takes his late grandmother's tape recorder that she used to record music and employs it as a device to record stories in order to secure that long-hidden truths are finally preserved for everybody to hear. Like the oral history in the national archives, Kevin creates a soundscape of stories about his own family, thus also finding out who he is and where he comes from. 

So all in all, there is a lot to enjoy in this novel, and to my knowledge, its topic is not widely discussed in literature that is available in English (or German). Jing-Jing Lee has a lot of empathy for her characters, she does not indulge in flashy descriptions of violence or in kitsch, and she taught me quite a bit about Singapore. Still, I found the novel way too long: It is full passages that contain unnecessary descriptions as well as retardations that do not heighten suspense, but are slightly enervating. The language was fine and very readable, but not unique. Unfortunately, the writing is lacking a poetic dimension that might transport the book from being an interesting historic novel into a lyrical meditation about history and storytelling - that the power of language is one of the main topics the author adresses makes the reader wish she would have opted for a more daring poetic concept.

All in all, this is still a solid debut novel that I would recommend: It's informative, well-written and full of heart.
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Even after seemingly finishing this book, I am confused. What ending do I want the book to have or what ending do I myself think he book must have? Nothing tied up with a neat bow is frustrating to me and effects my overall rating of this book.

We are led to believe there are three story threads but the majority of the book is from the perspective of Wang Dai who is taken from her village as a seventeen year old and 'works' as a comfort woman for the duration of the occupation of Singapore. An eye opening and very distressing read.....the horrors of being continually raped multiple times for days...months...years.  But sadder still, the stigma attached to these poor woman, as long as sixty years later. We should all be ashamed of ourselves. Are humans truly this cruel? Yes....atrocities of war are true.

For me just a book based on Wang Dai would've been enough but we also follow twelve year old Kevin in the year 2000 who sets out to uncover the truth of his grandmothers death bed mumblings and how Kevin's dad links us into Wang Dai's lifestory. 

And that is where I was confused I am afraid.

Thank you Oneworld Publications and NetGalley for the chance to read and review.
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Set in Singapore during Japan's invasion of Malaysia, 'How We Disappeared' is the story of a woman who lost her identity during the war and a man who lost most of his family. Their strange marriage was one where talks on war were forbidden. But it wasn't exactly their fault, it was all in the memories.

16-year-old Wand Di had a restricted childhood. She was forced to stay home and help her mother with the chores. But her worst nightmare started when she is forced into sexual slavery in a brother. These memories have haunted her for years, scarring her for life. When she marries a man who has lost his family to war, she is unable to offer any comfort and that is a constant source of regret.

In a parallel world, Kevin (a visually impaired child) finds out a secret about his family from his dying grandmother and is determined to find the truth behind it.

As Wand Di sets herself on a path to find out everything about her husband's lost family (after his death), Kevin encounters a set of events that both astonishes him and breaks him anew.

The narrative varies between Wang Di's present and past, as well as Kevin's experience. The story explores pain in a raw manner, and it is extremely easy to connect with these characters. The plot might be slow at times, but the ending was satisfying and fulfilling.
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A beautifully written, heartbreaking story of Singapore 1942. Singapore is under the Japanese occupation and this story is told in two time frames. The cruelty is completely harrowing but the strength and bravery of the women shines through.
It is very sensitive and difficultly profound but a story that needed to be told.
Powerfully strong.
My thanks go to the author, publisher and Netgalley in providing this arc return for a honest review.
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Thanks to Oneworld Publications and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

What a book. It has been a long while since I felt myself so emotionally affected after reading a book. I started and finished this book almost in one sitting and was utterly gripped by the story.

The main character of this book is Wang Di, an elderly woman who lived through the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II. The story flashbacks to her experiences during this time, as well as her life in the present day. We also have the perspective view of Kevin, a twelve year old boy who tasks himself with unlocking a long held family secret.

This book is beautifully written and has a surprisingly fast paced and exciting plot for this genre. It is not an easy read by any means, Wang Di's experiences as a 'comfort woman' during the war are horrific and heartbreaking and the human capacity for cruelty made me want to curl into a ball and cry at certain points. I was also very affected by the loneliness of Wang Di's current day life and the attitude of those around her towards her quirky 'collecting' habits.

That said, there is beauty and hope here too. Wang Di's love story with her husband, Kevin's relationship with his family and also Wang Di's close female friendships during her time in captivity reminds us that there is love at even the bleakest of times.

This novel explores the enduring trauma of war and the resulting mental scars and grief that can last a lifetime. Other themes explored include secrets, memories, mental illness and what is left unsaid and the historical context of the Japanese occupation and the real life horrors experienced by those living under it. 
This is my 100th netgalley review and what a book to achieve this milestone with. Powerful, thought provoking and beautifully written. This novel will stick with me for a long time.
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Beautifully written, poignant, tragic and heartstopping. I found this story to be traumatic reading, knowing that not so long ago these events were truly played out, in a commonwealth country, and have since been forgotten it seems by so many, The culture, history and scars of Singapore are told in a kind of poetry by the author, The experiences of women in war is such a strong and under-told kind of story in my opinion, and this book is one step forward in making sure these female (own) voices are heard. It is a story that changes you, as so much of history does once it is revealed.
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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.
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As I started to read How We Disappeared, I felt that it was fortuitously connected to my last Asian novel, The Garden of Evening Mists. That post-war Malaysian story included passing references to the ianfu (comfort women) and How We Disappeared is a fictionalised, but well researched, account from one such woman, Wang Di. To be honest, this is a horrific story. Not the novel itself, of course. Lee's delicate yet powerful prose style is perfectly suited to the tale and I couldn't tear myself away from the pages. But imagining what those thousands of ianfu women endured firstly years of sexual abuse from the seemingly endless queues of Japanese soldiers and then, after the war ended, being shunned by their own families who frequently turned their backs on returning women because the shame was too much. A relation who has been mentally and physically almost destroyed by her wartime experience and she gets no help or 'comfort' herself because sex hurt her so everybody looks away and pretends she doesn't exist. It's heartbreaking.

If I haven't scared you off yet though, and you enjoy good literary fiction, then this is absolutely a novel to pick up and read. Wang Di speaks to us in vivid remembrances of the past, but also of her life as the crazy old woman she has become. We learn of the sixty years following the war, her marriage and the ways in which she learned to cope, strategies that seem bizarre to outsiders yet are completely plausible when their roots are known. I was reminded of Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping where a misunderstood woman encounters similar reactions to her behaviour. Then the connection with young Kevin is a lovely storyline and I appreciated its thoroughly believable conclusion. How We Disappeared is an amazing read that I think will become a classic.
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This was a hard and heartbreaking read. This book will stay with me for a long time. These were horrendous acts that I knew nothing about. Weaving the story into Kevin's story brought everything even more to life and showed the echoes down through the generations that the events during the war had caused. 

Thank you to Netgalley for my copy.
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How We Disappeared by Jing- Jing Lee is largely set in  World War II Singapore during the Japanese occupation. Wang Di is seventeen, on the verge of womanhood when she is taken away from her family and forced to work as a "comfort woman" for the soldiers of the Japanese army. She is forced to endure horrific sexual and physical abuse which will cast a shadow over her for the rest of her life. Even 60 years later, as she mourns the loss of her husband, she is still haunted by not just her past, but also his. Every year on the same date in February he disappeared for the day,  and she has no idea where he went or why. Following his death she tries to uncover the mystery and learns that her husband was the only survivor from his village.
Meanwhile in the year 2000 , 12 year old Kevin hears his dying Grandmother reveal a shocking secret that could tear his family apart. Determined to get to the truth, he begins to investigate the story with surprising results. 
This multi- generational story is incredibly heartbreaking ,and shines a light on one of the lesser known stories of the war in the Pacific. The brutality and inhumanity of the occupying army makes for difficult reading, but it is important that there is more awareness of this era in history. There are also moments of great tenderness and beauty scattered throughout the book, and the overall tone is one of hope. The final few chapters when the different narrative threads come together are nothing short of heartbreaking, but in a wonderfully hopeful way. 
I read and reviewed an ARC courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, all opinions are my own.
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This is a heart-breaking story.

In modern day Singapore Wang Di is mourning the death of her husband, fondly called “The Old One”.

She has regrets though, one of which is not finding the courage or voice to confide with her husband (of 50 years), her experiences of Japanese occupied Singapore.  

At the age of 16 Wang Di was kidnapped from her family and made to work in a brother as a “Comfort Woman” for the Japanese army. In being a “Comfort Woman” she was imprisoned and systematically raped to provide "comfort" and distraction to the Japanese Soldiers.  

Woven in to the story is a Kevin, and awkward boy who hears his Grandmothers bedside confession, and decides to uncover the mystery of her words.

The time-frame moves from modern day Wang Di and Kevin, to Occupied Singapore, and the recounting makes harrowing reading.  Perhaps most so as when Wang Di gets back to her family her mother instructs her to tell no-one, to which Wang Di asks, “Who’s going to listen”.

Despite the narrative I found this book a bit awkward to read.  It moves from one time frame/narrator to another, and which makes it a bit clunky to follow.  Wang Di is a chronic hoarder and I think maybe the irrationality of her thoughts were trying to be portrayed in the writing, but for me it made it awkward to read.

I was also left with a bit of dissatisfaction at the end, some of the threads were not sewn up, and I have been left with some questions.  I would have liked the time in coming out of the brothel and getting back to her family to be explored a lot more.  For me it was superficially skimmed over.   

Despite this I still enjoyed this novel, and its stayed with me a long time after finishing.

Thank you Netgalley for my advance ARC.
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The history in this book is brutal and at times brought tears to my eyes. 
The writing is not the best but it’s an amazing book.
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A haunting story that flips back and forth between 2 main characters and different timelines. I found it a little difficult to get into to begin with but really enjoyed it.
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How We Disappeared tells the tragic story of Wang Di, a woman who gets taken away as a teenager by the Japanese army during their occupation of Singapore. She is then forced into sexual slavery for three years. Sixty years later, she is still haunted by the trauma she had to live through. Wang Di’s story is weaved together with Kevin’s - a schoolboy, who hears his grandmother confess to a life-changing secret on her deathbed. Determined to find out the truth, Kevin sets out to find out answers.

This novel was stunning. From beginning to end. Jing-Jing Lee’s writing is masterful, touching and absolutely terrifying at times. I found myself holding my breath so many times throughout the story. Other times, the subject matter got so heavy, so horrifying that I had to look away and compose myself for a minute before I could continue. I didn’t just read about Wang Di’s story, I felt like I was a silent observer to all the atrocities she had to live through and couldn’t do a thing to help. 

What an incredibly important book about a time period probably not many know about. Kudos to Lee for writing such a powerful and unforgettable novel. She’s an author I will be looking out for again in the near future.

Many thanks to OneWorld for an ARC via NetGalley.
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This was not an easy book to read because it reflected the tragic lives of so many people in China during the second world war, not just the fictional characters. It traces the journey of two families torn apart by the invasion of Japan, both families suffering unbelievable cruelty and deprivation. It takes Kevin, a young boy, to discover some secrets of the past and join broken links.
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Thank you to for giving me a free book in exchange for an honest review.

If I am sincere, I requested this book thinking it was going to be some non-fiction/memoir book. But I'm glad that I did read the book. As someone who is interested in history, there is so much much I want to learn about, the Japanese occupation is one of those topics, that's what first interested me about this book. This historical fiction is one that will sure tug on your heartstrings and make you think when people think of the second world war, they would most likely only think of the terrors of the Holocaust, but many other travesties were going on during that time. I hope this book will get that fact out there to many more readers. I thought author did an amazing job with this novel, and I look forward to reading more of her work.
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Beautifully written, this book has stayed with me after reading it. Not many books do that with me these days, so that should be an indication of just how good it is. The very sensitive subject matter is handled well, and written in such a way that it gave me a true insight into other situations, and the hardships some people have had to endure. Don't miss this one.
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‘He knew what the unsaid did to people.  Ate away at them from the inside.’

Singapore, 1942.  The Japanese troops sweep all before them as they move through Malaysia and into Singapore.  In one village, only two people and a tiny child survive.  In a nearby village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is taken from her village to a Japanese military brothel, where she is forced into sexual slavery.  Wang Di becomes one of becomes one of the ‘comfort women’.  

Later, Wang Di marries.  Her husband, affectionately known as ‘The Old One’ has also been traumatised by the war.  He was widowed and lost his family.  The two of them never speak to each other of their experiences.  
And then, years later after ‘The Old One’ dies, Wang Di tries to find out more about his past.

‘’Tell me a story.’  It was then she knew he had been waiting to say this.  Waiting for decades for the right moment.  And now he couldn’t wait anymore.’

Almost sixty years later, in 2000, twelve-year-old Kevin is with his grandmother as she is dying. She reveals to Kevin (unintentionally) a secret that she has kept for many years.  Kevin sets out to find out more about this secret.

The novel shifts between the young Wang Di and her experiences during the war, the elderly Wang Di and her search, and Kevin and his search.

I found parts of this novel difficult to read: the experiences of the ‘comfort women’ and their treatment are harrowing.  Ms Lee’s writing kept me reading, as did my desire to learn more about the secrets ‘The Old One’ and Wang Di had kept from each other. Each trying to protect the other from the horrors of the past.  

There is both horror and hope in this novel.  It is a novel I will reread.

‘Sometimes all you had to do to get someone to talk was to be silent.’

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Oneworld Publications for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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I wasn’t sure what to make of this but thought I would expand my reading and am so glad I did.  This book kept me gripped from the first page where Wang Di tells the reader two stories of how she may have been welcomed into the world.  
The book is told in two times frames and two perspectives both on the island of Singapore.  In 1942 we meet Wang Di a seventeen year old girl who is just waiting for the matchmaker to find her a husband, once her family agree, but then the Japanese invade.  In 2000 twelve year old Kevin is trying to get through the perils of being a child in today’s world and grief on the loss of his grandmother.  
It was like a thriller you knew what was going to happen to Wang Di but you dread it with every page and hope for a happy ending.  Knowing that the story is based in historical truths the  happy ending seems unlikely.  
I loved this book and how the story of Wang Di unravelled before becoming whole again.  I would highly recommend this book and enjoyed learning about the history of Singapore as I learned Wang Di’s.
Thanks to OneWorld publications and NetGalley for an ARC.
#NetGalley #HowWeDisappeared
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This is a historical fiction book set during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. It has two timeline perspectives, one in the 1940's during the occupation and the other in the 2000's. This is quite a hard read, due to the subject matter, but I think it is so important to know about the history of the world. I did find the switches in perspective a little jarring at times but overall this is well worth a read.
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