White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht – A Review

Publisher: Chatto And Windus, Penguin Random House UK

Publication date: 18th January 2018

Now I have to be straight up honest here and admit that when I was approved via Netgalley to review this book I couldn’t remember requesting it! When I read the synopsis I did wonder if it would be my kind of book but I’m so glad I gave it a chance and thank the publisher for accepting me.

It’s 1943 in Japanese occupied Korea, We meet 16 year old Hana and her younger sister Emi. Hana is a ‘haenyeo’ girl along with her mother, which basically means she dives in the sea to collect shellfish to sell at the market and earn a living. Emi is too young to dive and so she sits guarding the buckets on the shore line. Hana’s mother constantly warns her to stay away from the Japanese soldiers at all costs. One day whilst diving, Hana sees a soldier walking along the shore, heading unbeknownst in the direction of her little sister.

Hana swims quickly to shore and places herself between them to distract the soldier from her sisters whereabouts. In doing so, Hana makes the ultimate sacrifice for her sister and is captured by the soldier (Morimoto).

She is taken away and forced into life as a ‘comfort woman’, basically a prostitute working in a brothel frequented by Japanese soldiers. Apparently the Japanese army thought that a sexually satisfied soldier was a much stronger fighter.

Hana endures some harrowing experiences, brutal violence and sexual abuse as the soldiers basically do as they please with her and the other girls. At times very difficult to read and digest.

There is a dual timeline narrative to this story which links it all together which I really enjoyed. We hear the voice of Emi, now well into her seventies with a family of her own. She is in ailing health and feels such tremendous guilt over what happened to her sister. She has spent her life wondering if her sister is still out there and if they’ll ever be reunited.

Hana is such a beautiful character. Strong, and full or determination to survive and get back home to her family who she loves and misses dearly, especially little Emi.

Now I must admit I’d never heard of the phrase ‘comfort woman’ before and apparently it was only in the early 90’s that the death, torture and sheer destruction of these young Korean girl’s lives was even acknowledged. Which when you think about it is just utter madness.

This is undoubtedly a shocking read, made all the more heart wrenching because it is based on events which actually occurred. And although Hana and Emi are fictional characters, Hana’s experiences as a comfort woman would have been typical of what actually occurred at that time. It just blows the mind.

I’m always loathe to say that I enjoyed a book with content like this as ‘enjoyed’ doesn’t seem like quite the right word to use but I enjoyed the reading experience and found the whole thing fascinating. Yet again this is a book that piques your interest and makes you want to find out more. Handily there is some factual information and a timeline at the back of the book which helps the reader to better understand events and when they happened.

I would definitely recommend this book if you have a love for history and maybe a strong stomach and thick skin!

See you soon.

Bookish Chat xxx

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