A debut novel about the Korean “comfort women” prostituted by Japanese soldiers in World War II—and the strong bond between two sisters separated by the conflict.
Sixteen-year-old Hana lives with her parents and younger sister, Emi, on Jeju Island off the southern coast of Korea. It’s 1943, and though the country has been under Japanese occupation for decades, the family has lived a relatively peaceful existence: Hana and her mother are haenyeos (divers), and her father is a fisherman. Then Hana is kidnapped by a Japanese soldier and brought to a military brothel, where she and other young Korean women are forced into sexual slavery. She tries to escape several times, without much luck. Hana’s sorrowful story is intercut with Emi’s narrative, set in 2011 on Jeju Island and in Seoul. Coerced into a loveless marriage with a Korean policeman, Emi is now an elderly widow with two adult children and horrific memories of what happened to her parents and her village in the run-up to the Korean War. Emi is still searching for her lost sister and blaming herself for Hana’s disappearance—Hana had shielded Emi from the Japanese soldier, preventing her from being captured. Both narratives end on hopeful, albeit somewhat unbelievable, notes. The book’s author, an American of Korean descent, writes well—the passages describing the sisters’ early lives are quite lyrical—and she’s adept at weaving in historical material about Korea and its fraught relationship with Japan. (The Japanese only apologized for the comfort women in the 1990s, and controversy persists.) But the novel is so relentlessly and explicitly brutal it runs the risk of numbing, or perhaps exhausting, the reader.
The white chrysanthemum is a Korean symbol of mourning—appropriate for this worthy novel.