White Chrysanthemum is a beautifully- written novel that shines a light on the terrible plight of so-called ‘Comfort Women’ during the Second World War. It is a riveting, powerful account that left me feeling devastated for the real-life women who were forced into sexual slavery.
Hana and her little sister Emi are part of an island community of haenyeo – they come from a long line of proud women who make their living from deep sea diving off the southernmost tip of Korea. Hana is sixteen-years-old and has been warned to stay away from Japanese soldiers, but one day when she is swimming, she sees a Japanese soldier walking towards where her younger sister is guarding the day’s catch on the beach. Hana can only think of saving her sister, and she swims as hard as she can towards the shore, managing to hide her sister, but in doing so she is taken captive by the Japanese soldier.
At this point, the novel switches between the two sisters – Hana who has been abducted and taken to be a prostitute by the Japanese military, and Emi as an older woman, looking back on her life and revealing her own difficulties. White Chrysanthemum is a brave and bold book and one that highlights terrible atrocities of the Second World War that I knew little about previously. In the Author’s Note, Mary Lynn Bracht says, ‘Some historians believe fifty thousand to two hundred thousand Korean women and girls were stolen, tricked or sold into military sexual slavery for and by the Japanese military during Japan’s colonisation of Korea.’
It’s a heart wrenching read, but also an important one to share. The author has done an excellent job with this sensitive and difficult subject matter. The sister’s love for each other pulls the storyline into the light, but it doesn’t shy away from revealing the atrocities that were inflicted on women, and sometimes young children during this period of history. Highly recommended.
Penguin Random House, RRP $37.00