I have recently read ‘White Chrysanthemum’ by Mary Lynn Bracht, and this is why it should be the next book you read.
I’m bad for sticking to the same set of authors when reading outside of my English Lit degree. Elif Shafak and Khaled Hosseini have my heart when it comes to choosing a new book. But what the likes of ‘Three Daughters of Eve’ by Shafak and ‘A Thousand Spendid Suns’ by Hosseini taught me was that I cannot fall for a book set solely in the twenty-first century UK. I just can’t get sucked into a book that is set in the surroundings I already live in and know about.
‘White Chrysanthemum’ by Mary Lynn Bracht appealed to me because not only was it not set in England, it wasn’t set in the Middle East, which is where my reading generally centres. ‘White Chrysanthemum’ is set begins on the Jeju island off the southernmost tip of Korea, in the year 1943. The Second World War is well underway and Korea is under control of by the Japanese.
The book got another tip from me by being set in two completely different times – 1943, as I said, and 2013. I felt Bracht used this technique which is very common nowadays to successfully show the cause and effect of the Japanese occupation of Korea. As a history student, I’ve studied various aspects of the Second World War, but never from the perspective of the other side of the world. Previously, the Japanese role in the war seemed distant and uninteresting to me, but god, how Bracht’s novel has changed that.
This novel is beautiful.
We are introduced to the Jeju island and haenyeo women – free divers. These women are the bread-winners of their families, diving for long periods of time without any breathing apparatuses – a culture that has been alive for hundreds of years. A strong female community, the novel starts with a feeling of female empowerment. This makes the path the novel goes down all the more shocking. The novel is ugly, too.
The two main characters are sisters, Hana and Emi. Devastatingly, we see precious little of them together. It is only after Hana’s abduction that we see how close they were and how special their relationship was. Though we only witness Hana as a sixteen-year-old, we watch Emi grow from the age of 9, never knowing what happened to her sister. Hana’s abduction and the devastation of Emi’s life of turmoil – the cause and effect. Emi suffers a fate worse than death; watching everyone she loves disappear as a result of war.
‘White Chrysanthemum’ is horrifying, repulsive and addictive.
Bracht uses sixteen-year-old Hana as a tool for educating and sickening the reader as we are taken on her journey through abduction and rape. Hana, like two hundred thousand women during the war, was forced into sex slavery. She was a ‘comfort woman’ – a woman to rape as ‘good luck’ before Japanese soldiers went off to fight. Morning till night, men queue up at Hana’s door, as well as the other girls in the brothel-like captivity. She is raped constantly, all day, every day, for the duration of her captivity.
Bracht doesn’t let us miss a single second of the agony or a detail of the shame inflicted on Hana. We witness her being broken in a way she will never be fixed. We can’t look away when the doctor comes every other week, to check her for disease and effectively disinfect her vagina from the remnants of hundreds of rapists. We are forced to watch Hana and the other girls wash used condoms in a barrel of water, unable to cry out about how wrong that is. Even reading it hurts. I couldn’t put this book down.
The difference between Hana’s life and that of the majority of ‘comfort women’ is that she survived. Bracht almost blushes at this in her author’s note, where it is clear she felt a human connection to Hana. After the horror of Hana’s life, I wanted to thank Bracht for indulging in a happy ending with her survival. I promise I haven’t ruined the novel for telling you that Hana survives.
It is only at the end of the novel that you truly realise that Hana was just a symbol.
A symbol for two hundred thousand women and girls that suffered the same fate. I have no idea why we do not study this at university. It should be on syllabuses everywhere. We should pay our respect for those destroyed lives, both the dead and the survivors. We have learnt so much from the Second World War about conflict, and the point of learning about wars is to prevent them happening again. Learning from our mistakes. How are we supposed to learn from those mistakes if no one knows it happened?
Thank you, Mary Lynn Bracht, for this novel. Please read this book.