How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Singaporean author Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared portrays the gruesome horrors of war that are often misrepresented, sanitized, or omitted entirely from retrospective conversation. As innocent civilian characters persevere through deprived conditions of war-torn Singapore during the Japanese occupation, the self-lies and taboos maintained are often the only viable coping mechanisms available. Unfortunately, this same denial pervades the way its content is approached, portraying sexual slavery in a manner vague enough that by the story’s end, the comfort women who disappeared within the jaws of war are to an extent still hidden. Lee leans heavily on artificial delay of story, padding the novel with an entirely separate character arc that’s afforded equal stage time but ultimately represents little more than an overstretched frame narrative. How We Disappeared poses extraneous logistical questions most won’t care about, then runs to disappear in the hills once it’s time to deliver.
The story features three threads in total, itself a wasteful excess. The central narrative involves teenager Wang Di in the 1940s, who comes of age during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Singapore. She is abducted by troops and conscripted as a comfort woman in a what is essentially a sex slavery dungeon. The second thread features an elderly Wang Di in the year 2000, shortly after the death of her husband. Finally, also in the year 2000, is twelve-year-old Kevin, whose grandmother mumbles a scarcely intelligible deathbed confession, prompting him to investigate a trail that may shed previously-unknown light on the truth of his lineage.
It’s the obligatory cycling through all three threads that really damages the novel’s core experience. Wang Di’s wartime struggles and her descent into sexual servitude is the “real” story, and it’s in many ways not half bad, succeeding most when portraying the viciousness of imperial aggression. The seemingly endless gauntlet of horrors inflicted upon the Singaporean public is harrowing to be sure, and is executed in good taste. But we are frequently pulled away from the proceedings out of obligation to check in on the modern day threads of elderly Wang Di and young Kevin. Kevin’s sections in particular are largely filler, intended to delay the supposedly pressing questions asked at the story’s start. In one Kevin chapter, for no apparent reason he snoops in his parents’ bedroom and stumbles upon a set of letters, without which his plot would have had no way to progress. In his next chapter, he prepares to ask his parents about the letters, but chickens out at the last moment. Lee strains to afford more depth to the unfortunate Kevin by threading in a B-plot about getting bullied at school, but he emerges as little more than an excuse vehicle on a tedious hunt for backstory exposition.
How We Disappeared spends a majority of your time asking very direct plot-related questions, needlessly postponing the answer, then spelling out most of it head-on. It’s a bit like Dumbledore talking to Harry in the final chapter of a Potter book, but far less engaging, through its use of recovered letters that lay everything on the table with excruciating detail. The way the two separate storylines connect is arbitrary at best; they’re essentially concurrent events that overlap incidentally but not meaningfully. Including this detail in a review is a minor spoiler, but it’s a disclosure made in service of the reading community at large, who deserve to be treated with a bit more respect. On that note, this book indulges in the bafflingly common decision to title every chapter with the name of the character whose perspective the chapter documents. Do we really need a massive billboard every single time, to advertise the main character of the chapter? Wouldn’t readers figure this out within the first couple of sentences, in addition to the fact that the three narrative threads rotate in consistent order without exception?
It’s all the more unfitting since How We Disappeared aims to tackle heavy subject matter that doesn’t deserve to be hampered by this many unforced errors. The story affords extensive attention to the wartime squalor of the general public during the Japanese invasion, as well as Wang Di’s aforementioned descent into sexual servitude, during which she’s treated as an object and battered throughout a daily schedule of anywhere between 20 to 50 soldier clients. But once this nightmare begins, Lee leans heavily on indirect euphemisms, for example describing a soldier as coming into the room to “do their business.” In the book’s dedication page, Lee thanks “the grandmas who told their stories,” and it’s possible Lee was a bit too personally close with her sources to do them full justice. When it came down to actually conveying their stories in her writing, perhaps she didn’t want to get too graphic lest she embarrass the real-word women whose anecdotes she mined. Even putting this speculative theory aside, Lee falls short when attempting to give this historical reality a fictional portrait. The novel’s key engine of immersive fiction instead sputters and plays it safer than necessary.
The overall plot intrigue, meanwhile, places too much importance on the factor of lineage. Lee extensively teases alternate identities and the revelation of secret parentage, but shouldn’t one’s deliberate choices of values and integrity take significant precedence over the unearned inheritance of physical characteristics? Amid this jumble of priorities, it shouldn’t surprise that multiple chapters open with faux-profound truisms including statements that time is a funny thing, or that sometimes, you don’t realize you’ve been waiting for something for years and years, until it arrives at your doorstep and looks you in the face. It’s as if Lee, a native Singaporean and current Amsterdam expatriate, has never seen an episode of Scrubs or Sex and the City, and thus is clueless to avoid the cliche landmines readily apparent in that brand of pop-philosophy pontification. It’s an unfortunate misstep to use this stale format to represent a history of such meaningful weight.
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