Book Review: How We Disappeared

Alternating between timelines in 1942 and 2000, How We Disappeared follows Wang-Di, who is taken from her Singaporean village during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, while Wang-Di is still reckoning with her trauma from the war, 12-year-old Kevin overhears a shocking confession from his grandmother’s deathbed, leading him to uncover secrets about what she lived through during WWII.

The book: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The prose in this novel is absolutely lovely. Lee tells her story in three distinct sections: young Wang Di when she is captured during WWII, old Wang Di trying to overcome the trauma that still haunts her in the year 2000, and Kevin investigating his grandmother’s history in 2000. All three sections are beautifully and convincingly written, with the historical scenes set during WWII especially immersive. There are some passages where Kevin uses language that seems too advanced for his age, but he sees the world in a very curious and childlike way, so he was still believable as a 12-year-old to me.

How We Disappeared isn’t just well-written; it is also written with immense compassion. The horrific details of Wang Di’s sexual slavery are never told more graphically than they need to be, so the book never enters trauma-porn territory. Lee does describe the horrors that the comfort women endured (rape, violence, near-starvation, and unsanitary living conditions, to name a few), but she spends just as much time focusing on the psychological effects and aftermath of sexual slavery. What broke my heart the most wasn’t the violence that the comfort women endured (although it was certainly harrowing), but the stigma and shame that followed them for the rest of their lives after the war.

I also enjoyed the way the various timelines eventually weaved together. Before the connection between Wang Di and Kevin’s stories became clear, the transitions between the two sometimes felt a bit disjointed, but I felt that the slightly discontinuous storytelling was worth it for the way the two stories eventually connected. Also – minor spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it! – I’m not sure how realistic it was for Kevin to figure out the connection between his story and Wang Di’s, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the novel that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

All in all, I really enjoyed How We Disappeared. Almost all of my WWII education was focused on Europe and the Holocaust, so it was very eye-opening to read this well-researched and beautifully written story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The novel was challenging and heartbreaking at times, but it was absolutely worth the read. I highly recommend this book!

Author: Hannah Celeste

Hi! I'm Hannah, a book-blogger from the Northeastern United States. I enjoy reading many genres, cooking and baking, doing yoga, and spending time with my two cats.

22 thoughts on “Book Review: How We Disappeared”

  1. Great review & sounds like a moving & insightful read. My WW2 education was similarly eurocentric, and it sounds like this book does a v good job at bringing east Asian experiences of the conflict to life for a new audience to understand. Will be adding to the TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read another story, Daughters of the Dragon, about comfort women (in this case from Korea) under WW2. I found it an interesting, educational and quite heartbreaking story. I like the sound of How We Disappeared as well, great review!

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  3. I honestly didn’t know that Japan occupied and colonized so many other countries until a couple of years ago. I always picture them getting hit by the bomb and trying to recover after that and now we have Hello Kitty. Like, nothing else in my brain happened. I now know that there are still Koreans who are angry over Japan colonizing them. It comes up frequently in Korean cultures to this day. However, I didn’t know about Singapore. This book didn’t make the list for the Women’s Prize, did it?

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    1. I didn’t know either! Not knowing about it until recently is one of those events that really makes me look back and question my high school history education. I also didn’t know that the Japanese colonization still comes up in Korean culture, but it makes sense. I might want to read a Korean perspective on the invasion now. The book made the longlist, but not the shortlist (I would have been really happy to see it on the shortlist, though).

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      1. Lately, I find that Korean culture is popping up all over in my life. I saw Parasite in theaters pre-pandemic, and that’s in Korean. I watch Kim’s Convenience on Netflix. There are more books coming out that are translated from Korean, and I’m trying to get my hands on them.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. “I always picture them getting hit by the bomb and trying to recover after that and now we have Hello Kitty.” This is so funny 😂😂 When I first skimmed the sentence the image my brain registered was Japan bombs exploding with Hello Kitties, and I was like WAIT WHAT?!? I reread it again and it’s still funny, though. But yes, Hello Kitty aside they were pretty brutal.

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  4. I also found the stigma the most heartbreaking part! As if the sexual slavery and the death of her friend weren’t hard enough, she still had to be accused of being a whore. It made me so angry and sad. I also agree with the whole Kevin thing—it did feel unrealistic that he would figure it out. But it’s just a minor quibble for me. Great review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, the way Wang-Di’s family treats her when she returns is so so awful, and it kind of makes sense that after going through all of that she would internalize the shame and never want to talk about it again! I’m glad Lee included that detail because it was probably true to many women’s experience, even though it is awful 😮 😮

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