This agonising, haunting novel is set in the Singapore of 1942, when Japanese troops swept into Malaysia and Singapore, ransacked villages, killed people, and carried away women and little girls—wives, mothers, minors—and locked them up in Japanese military brothels to be used and brutalised as ‘comfort women’. After the assault, one village is left with just three survivors, one of them a tiny child. Seventeen-year-old Wang Di, whose name means “to hope for a brother”, lives with her parents and two brothers in a modest attap house in a kampong. Having never attended school, she helps out by selling eggs at the local market, and helping around the house-a simple, uneventful, commonplace existence. As the troops plunder villages, she too is similarly kidnapped, despite resistance from her father.
Despite her unyielding resistance to any discussion about the war, when her husband was alive, the agony surfaces periodically.
The novel has a three-stranded structure and two timelines woven together—the narrative of the teenage Wang Di, that of her older self—the wizened survivor, who, after sixty years of silence is now called ‘cardboard auntie’, a waste-picker, living in the orderly, modern Singapore, with her husband, whom she affectionately calls the Old One, and the story of twelve-year-old Kevin, who in 2000, embarks on a personal investigation, after his dying grandmother makes a startling confession about his father’s antecedents, which the boy whose eyesight is failing, records. It’s a secret that has been guarded for half a century, and is bound to upend many lives. Setting the tone of the book is an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin: “the best way of keeping a secret is to pretend there isn’t one.” That and the theme of disappearance sum up the life of Wang Di, and the world around her. Her dark secret has been buried deep inside her, though this suppression manifests in her seventies in different ways. She is known as the woman who collects and hoards things from the neighbourhood, and talks aloud to dead people, and to herself.
Despite her unyielding resistance to any discussion about the war, when her husband was alive, the agony surfaces periodically. The shame and guilt dog her at every step, of being enslaved and compelled to service forty to fifty Japanese soldiers every day, in a ramshackle room, surviving on meagre meals, disconnecting the mind from her ravaged body, hoping, waiting, despairing, conjuring pleasant scenarios to distract herself, enduring the excruciating pain and ignominy, of dying a little, and yet wanting to live.
It’s about dying a little every day, till living and moving on become imperative, till all the lost threads are woven together once again, till the lines between memory and reality are blurred.
This story is not only about ravaged women, it is about the attempt to extinguish their spirit, about the limits of endurance, the depraved side of humanity, of astonishing resilience, of the shocking depths to which the human race can fall in times of war, about disappearing people and cultures, fractured relationships, about the rejection loved ones are subjected to, the isolation and condemnation of survivors by a society which inflicted the fate on unsuspecting, innocent beings. The book is also about hope, about love in difficult times, about building lives from the dregs of a bygone civilisation, about what could have been and what is, about people who settle in your pores long after their death, who disappear and reappear, and about the unbreakable bonds built in captivity. It’s about dying a little every day, till living and moving on become imperative, till all the lost threads are woven together once again, till the lines between memory and reality are blurred.
A profoundly visceral and heartbreaking novel, it explores a little-known period of history, depicts the essence of Singapore, the then Syonanto, weaving details, traditions, scents and flavours of the times. Wang Di’s voice, her periodic visits to the past, her yearning to find what she has lost, her regrets about her silence, are as engaging as they are searing. Little Kevin, bullied at school, a sensitive explorer of truth, who unearths secrets, and pursues leads with tenacity, is the perfect, bright foil to Wang Di’s silence. Their subsequent collaboration is expected and natural, but Lee introduces a twist and heightens the tension and drama.
This book is a difficult read. While the foreshadowing gives you an inkling of what is to follow, nothing prepares you for Wang Di’s account of the daily sufferings of the enslaved women, the shocking depths of human savagery, the deep effects of captivity, the unspeakable wounds on the body and mind. It’s all the more painful because it is based on real-life women who were snatched from their families during WWII, who lost everything they knew as their own, including their dignity and their identities. It is a story that needed to be told, to be heard, to be passed on, the way the grandmas (halmonies, Lolas and amas) to whom this book is dedicated, told their stories, before their voices could be silenced.
This moving, unforgettable novel is also about human resilience and hope and courage, about the possibility of peace and love, in the aftermath of war. A must-read.
Image Credit: Jing-Jing Lee/ Oneworld Publications
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.