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!

Book Review: Where The Crawdads Sing

Both a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, Where The Crawdads Sing follows “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark from early childhood, when she is abandoned by her family and left to survive alone in the marshes on the North Carolina coast, to early adulthood, when she becomes a suspect in a murder case. The two timelines alternate throughout the book until Kya’s coming-of-age trajectory eventually catches up to the murder trial.

The book: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery/coming-of-age
My rating: 3 stars out of 5

The gorgeously immersive setting of the marshes on the North Carolina coast immediately drew me into this book, but the first 100-or-so pages moved very slowly, plot-wise. Some of that slowness seemed necessary to portray Kya’s self-reliance and loneliness. The mundane details of her fishing, cooking, and doing handiwork in her shack demonstrate how hard she worked to survive alone. The long, slow-moving passages where Kya observes wildlife and ruminates in nature allow the reader to really feel the slowness and loneliness of Kya’s day-to-day life. But that being said, the novel still could have been around 60-70 pages shorter.

It’s also worth noting that Owens phonetically spells out the characters’ Southern dialects. I found this jarring and uncomfortable at first, but quickly got used to it and even found that it further immersed me in the Southern setting. I don’t think that the phonetic spelling of dialects in this book was problematic, since Owens was born and raised in southern Georgia and speaks with a Southern dialect herself.

Where this book really shined for me was in its tender portrayal of societal and environmental issues. Through Kya’s story, Owens demonstrates how hard it is to get an education in certain parts of the United States, how individuals from poor communities can end up in perpetual cycles of disadvantage, and how being “othered” by society has detrimental effects on a developing child. While showing all of this, Owens also compassionately rejects stereotypes: she never judges Kya’s mom or siblings for abandoning their family, she demonstrates that Kya is quite intelligent and resourceful despite lacking a formal education, and she even portrays Kya’s abusive father with considerable nuance (not so much so that it excuses his abuse – just enough to show that he is complicated).

I also enjoyed the way Where The Crawdads Sing spans multiple genres. The book is described as a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, but being set in North Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s before the Civil Rights Movement, it is also very much a historical fiction novel. The book also crosses into romance at times, and into courtroom drama toward the end. And as mentioned before, there is beautifully vivid nature writing throughout. However, some genres were explored more successfully than others. I found the legal/courtroom drama scenes to be the most engaging and evocative, and the romance to be a bit trite.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s not a perfect novel, but I appreciated its immersive setting, its themes of accepting others and rejecting stereotypes, and the page-turning courtroom scenes toward the end.


Side note: based on the Goodreads rating (4.5), most readers really connected with this book, so perhaps I’m being too harsh or just didn’t connect with the writing as much as others did.

Unimportant fun fact: the author, Delia Owens, and I went to the same universities (although not at the same time, and not in the same order).

Book Review: A Thousand Ships

“This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of them all.” A Thousand Ships is an all-female retelling of the Trojan War, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different woman.

The book: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Hayes
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

A Thousand Ships was an uneven reading experience for me: some sections were incredibly compelling, while others felt dry and repetitive. For example, the Penthesilea and Laodamia chapters were short, and the respective protagonists of those chapters barely reappeared in the novel, so those chapters didn’t add much to the story for me. On the other hand, the longer chapters (like the Clytemnestra chapter) and the characters that reappeared throughout the story (like Cassandra) were well-developed and compelling.

Even if not all the individual characters in A Thousand Ships were well-developed, the role of women as a whole in the Trojan War was well-explored. With great detail and compassion, Haynes demonstrated that the women of the Trojan War were more than just wives and daughters of the warriors who normally take the center stage in Trojan War stories: they were complex women who experienced loss, anger, grief, and devastation. I did wish at times that Haynes had been more subtle with this message, though: there were points when it felt like she was beating the reader over the head with the message that the Trojan War was also a woman’s war. The message is important, but it would have been effectively communicated without repeated statements like: “But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind” or “he needs to accept that the casualties of war aren’t just the ones who die” or “When a war ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else.”

Something that surprised me (in a good way) was the familiarity of some of the novel’s themes and characters’ behaviors. From overpopulation stressing the Earth’s resources, to egomaniac leaders who are power-hungry yet incompetent, to women attacking other women when their real issue is with the men who hold unfair amounts of power over them — I appreciated how Haynes presented an ancient story in a way that felt somewhat relatable.

Although I normally don’t enjoy “uneven” reading experiences, A Thousand Ships was an overall enjoyable read for me. Even when the story got dull or repetitive, the prose was lovely. And certain chapters (like Clytemnestra’s chapter, which explores her emotions and motives in a beautifully written and moving way) were so powerful that they made it easy for me to overlook some of the novel’s shortcomings. I liked this all-female retelling of the Trojan War, and would certainly read more of Haynes’ work in the future (especially if she ever wrote an entire Cassandra or Clytemnestra book).

Book Review: Actress

Yup, another novel from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! Actress follows Norah – adult daughter of the (late) superstar Katherine O’Dell – as she looks back on her mother’s life history and tries to figure out why Katherine went mad and shot her colleague in the foot. In retracing her mother’s history, Norah uncovers old secrets and reflects on how her mother’s stardom affected her own life.

The book: Actress by Anne Enright
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out 5

One thing that immediately stood out to me about Actress was the writing. The prose is beautiful, intimate, and sometimes cynically funny. Structurally, the novel had a non-linear timeline, and shifts in whose story the novel was telling (Katherine’s and Norah’s stories are intertwined throughout the book). These are both elements that don’t always work for me, but Actress was so well-written that these elements felt natural in the context of the story.

I’ve seen mixed reviews on whether or not Norah was a good choice of narrator for this story – I thought she was. Norah is the person that Katherine was closest to, and therefore the best person to write about her in all her complexity. Because of their close relationship, Norah is able to write about her mother in an unflinchingly honest way, while also expressing tenderness and compassion. The only thing about the narrative that didn’t work for me was it being written in the 2nd-person to Norah’s husband; I think using the 1st-person (still with Norah as the narrator) would have made more sense.

A weird experience that I had reading this novel was immediately loving the writing, but not finding the first ~100-or-so pages of plot to be particularly interesting. I wasn’t that compelled by Katherine’s family history or her childhood exposure to stardom, but at the same time, I could appreciate that it was exceptionally well-written. The remainder of the book – Katherine’s young adult career, her rise to stardom, the way that fame changed her, and Norah looking back and figuring out what broke her – really pulled me in. This could be because Norah, who was born when Katherine was 23, tells the parts of Katherine life that she personally remembers with more warmth, intimacy, and nuance. Or it could just be some personal bias that made it hard for me to get into the story at first!

Another strength of Actress was the historical commentary. Throughout the novel, Enright weaves in historical details about old Hollywood and The Troubles in a way that is believable, immersive, and pertinent to the story. I thought that the impact of certain historical events, especially the political violence of The Troubles, could have been given a bit more consequence…but having just read Dominicana, where major political events were simply mentioned without being meaningfully woven into the story at all, I thought that Enright captured the political climate of 20th-century Ireland in a way that made sense to the story as a whole.

Overall, I thought Actress was a beautifully written novel featuring a realistically complex mother-daughter relationship. I’m not sure if the first ~1/3 of the book was actually slower or less interesting than the rest, or if it was just me. Regardless, once I did get into the story, it absolutely captivated me. I would be very happy to see Actress advance to the WP shortlist.

Side notes:

  1. The summary of this book (the American version) on the inside of the cover contained what I thought were major spoilers. This was on the physical copy of the book only, not in the Goodreads summary.
  2. Once again, this book led me to retroactively change another WP longlist book rating. I keep rating books in a way that makes sense to me at the time, but then doesn’t hold up when I directly compare/rank the longlisted books.