How We Disappeared is set during the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1942. When Japanese troops storm through the small village, only a few survivors remain, including a small child. In a nearby village, a seventeen year old named Wang Di is bundled into the back of a troop carrier and taken to a Japanese military brothel. In her old age, the trauma she experienced weighs heavy.
When Kevin, a twelve year old boy, hears the confused confession of his dying grandmother, he begins to search for the truth about what happened to his own family during the war. He seeks to uncover secrets and memories that have been silenced for decades.
It’s only on finishing this novel that I realised how powerful the title is – Wang Di ‘disappears’ both literally and metaphorically when she’s snatched from her home. As a “comfort woman”, she loses her name, her agency and her freedom. The life and identity she had disappears.
The novel has an interesting structure, with chapters moving between different decades and perspectives- Wang Di as an elderly woman, Wang Di as a girl, and Kevin in present day. It serves to keep readers intrigued as we piece together what happened and what connects these families.
The chapters from Wang Di’s perspective that take place in the brothel during the war are deeply disturbing, traumatic and upsetting. It struck me that, for these women and girls, there was no way out. It’s claustrophobic. I took a long time to read these chapters, pausing to absorb the gravity and weight of what I was reading.
This book does have a strong sense of narrative and plot propelling it forward, with Kevin continuing to trace the unanswered questions in his family’s past. But what I’ll remember for years to come is the visceral descriptions of how women were treated in the military brothels and how quickly someone’s freedom and humanity can all but disappear.