It’s not often that I find myself using the words ‘delightful’ and ‘harrowing’ in the same book review, but here they are. White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht is the harrowing story of two Korean sisters separated during World War Two; one snatched to become a ‘comfort woman’ for Japanese soldiers, the other saved by her older sister’s actions.
It is difficult to read of the violence, the arrogance, the misuse of power and the humiliation of this piece of war history – still being publicised and discussed – but this is leavened by the magical water sequences. Sixteen-year old Hana is a haenyeo, a female diver of the sea, she is taught by her mother, in the family tradition, to dive deep, hold her breath and withstand the cold. When she is abused, she retreats to her memories. She is a tough cookie.
One day, she and her mother are diving, their father is away fishing, and her younger sister Emiko sits on the beach, guarding the buckets that contain their day’s catch from interested seagulls; then Japanese soldiers arrive. Desperate to stop them taking her sister to a life of captivity, Hana races out of the water and distracts them. Throughout Hana’s capture and enforced slavery, at the most horrific moments of fear and violation, the thing that anchors her to the idea of survival is the thought of her sister, learning to dive, the memory of the water, the smell of the sea. “Hana is lying on the bottom of the ocean, looking upward at the sunlight shimmering above the surface. The great ocean’s heartbeat pulses against her eardrums. The current caresses her skin. A heaviness on her chest is an old ship’s anchor she has found. She hugs it close to weigh her down.”
Emi, Hana’s eleven-year old sister, is too young to understand what is happening when Hana is taken away. It is Emi’s story, told looking back when she is herself a grandmother, which brings contemporary perspective to the microscopic detail of Hana’s story. The complicated war history of this region is clarified as we learn of Emi’s silence about her experiences in World War Two and the Korean War which followed. Such is her shame she has never told her two children that they had an aunt. But once a year Emi travels to Seoul to take part in the Wednesday Demonstration to demand official recognition for the ‘comfort women’.
The bibliography at the end of the book is testament to the author’s research but this never weighs heavily in the story. When a little historical exposition is necessary, Bracht adds it with a light hand. This is a solemn book with flashes of beauty and love which give you hope to read to the end. I admired Hana’s strength and honour. And I did not guess the ending. A delightful read.
Read more about Mary Lynn’s Bracht’s writing here.
If you like this, try:-
‘The Translation of Love’ by Lynne Kutsukake
‘The Aftermath’ by Rhidian Brook
‘The Gift of Rain’ by Tan Twan Eng
‘White Chrysanthemum’ by Mary Lynn Bracht [UK: Chatto & Windus]
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM by @MaryLynnBracht #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3hH via @SandraDanby