Hana and her little sister Emi are part of an island community of haenyo, women who make their living from diving deep into the sea off the southernmost tip of Korea. One day Hana sees a Japanese soldier heading for where Emi is guarding the day’s catch on the beach. Her mother has told her again and again never to be caught alone with one. Terrified for her sister, Hana swims as hard as she can for the shore. So begins the story of two sisters suddenly and violently separated by war. Switch-backing between Hana in 1943 and Emi as an old woman today, White Chrysanthemum takes us into a dark and devastating corner of history. But pulling us back into the light are two women whose love for one another is strong enough to triumph over the evils of war.
White Chrysanthemum was a sad and beautiful novel that told a story based on real events that I honestly had no idea of. And I’m so glad I learned about what happened, even if the reality was hard to process. By the time I finished the book, I read the author’s notes and kept searching for more info about “confort women”. It was simply terrifying.
So, what the book is about: 1943, Jeju Island (Korea). Hanna is a sixteen-year-old girl who is considered a “haenyeo” woman (fema divers). One day at the beach, Hanna wants to protect her little sister from the Japanese soldiers, but she ends up being abducted instead. From that moment, we follow Hanna’s devastating story in 1943 as she becomes a victim of sexual slavery, and Emi’s life as a woman in her seventies, while she tries to come to terms with what happened many years ago.
This is not an easy book to read due to the subject matter, but I believe it’s an important read nevertheless. Maybe because of that, I felt much more connected to Hanna’s story than Emi’s, as hers wasn’t as “emotional” or shocking, but I guess it was still necessary so as to show us what happened to those women who remained in the island. By the way, the concept of “haenyeo” women was so fascinating, I wish I could be like them.
Despite the heartbreaking events that were portrayed in this novel, I believe Mary Lynn Bracht’s writing was beautiful and evocative and I would definitely read another book by hers. Let’s remember “comfort women” and don’t let history forget them…
ARC, Chatto & Windus, 2018