on January 30th 2018
Genres: adult, historical
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In the spirit of Lilac Girls, the heartbreaking history of Korea is brought to life in this deeply moving and redemptive debut that follows two sisters separated by World War II.
Korea, 1943. Hana has lived her entire life under Japanese occupation. Following her mother's footsteps into the sea as a haenyeo, one of the famed female divers of beautiful Jeju Island, she enjoys an independence that few other Koreans can still claim. Until the day Hana witnesses a Japanese soldier threatening her beloved younger sister on shore. Desperate to save her, Hana is captured and transported to Manchuria where she is forced to become a comfort woman in a Japanese brothel. But haenyeo are women of power and strength and Hana holds close the lessons her mother taught her. She will find her way home.
South Korea, 2011. Emi has spent more than sixty years trying to forget the sacrifice her sister made. Now in the sunset of her life, Emi must finally confront the past to discover the peace she so desperately seeks. Finding hope in the healing of her children and her country, can Emi move beyond the legacy of war and find forgiveness?
At once suspenseful, hopeful, and ultimately redemptive, White Chrysanthemum puts a human face to the heartrending history of Korea and tells a story in which two sisters' love for one another is strong enough to triumph over decades and the grim evils of war.
I’m in a weird place with this book. Objectively, I realize it was well-written and shines a light on a horrible thing that was done to women from many different nations during the Japanese occupation of WW2. I’d honestly never heard about “comfort women” before reading this book, and that’s not a good thing. I’m not proud of it either. And I feel like books like this can help spread that knowledge and the horrific atrocities done to these women for many, many years.
But. I can’t say I enjoyed this book. Though it’s not the type of book that many would enjoy reading, I don’t think, because of the events it covers. It’s awful. Not the book itself, but I was miserable reading this and all the violence and tragedy that occurred in the pages. Graphic rape, beatings, kidnappings, torture, murder, etc.–it’s all in these pages, and most of it is written in a visual way for the reader to picture it just right. And I suppose that’s on purpose, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be either. But where does that leave me as a reviewer?
This is one of the times where the professional reviewers would tell me to keep my emotions out of it, I guess, so I’m rating it 4 stars, but not because I enjoyed reading this. It was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever put my eyes on. Honestly.
Oh, but I must mention, the comparisons to Memoirs of a Geisha? GTFOH with that. Look, I like both books; in fact, Memoirs is one of my favorite books of ALL-TIME. But you cannot compare two books and say they are similar because they are: 1: Both about Asian women; 2: about sisters being separated; 3: set during wartime; 4: even remotely thinking that “comfort women” and geisha are the same–they are NOT. And that’s it. Memoirs of a Geisha is a chronicle of one women’s life before, after, and as a geisha, with a little romance involved. It’s a sad book but it’s not like this. And I want you to be prepared before reading this. I don’t want readers going in thinking they are going to get a book like Memoirs because you will be incredibly disappointed.
The writing is great, with the dual POVs written incredibly well. Different voices, both strong, tell the stories of Emi and her sister, Hana, who is kidnapped on a Jeju Island beach one day while protecting her sister from a Japanese soldier. Hana’s POV is about her kidnapping, her time as a woman forced into sexual slavery, her multiple escape attempts, and finally her life afterward. Emi’s POV is mostly of her as an elderly woman trying to find out what happened to her sister and dealing with the trauma of the kidnapping that still haunts her in old age, though there are some flashbacks to the Korean War and what happened to her during it.
Like I mentioned, major trigger warnings for graphic scenes of rape, kidnapping, murder, and beating. It’s a book that I feel deserves to be read, but it’s not for everyone, and the cover sort of makes it seem like it won’t be that traumatic. I’m telling you that IT IS.
It’s also important to mention that White Chrysanthemum also presents a lovely homage to the haenyeo, which are the free-diving ladies of Jeju Island in Korea. Hana, her mother, and sister are all haenyeo; in fact, Hana is training as a haenyeo when she is kidnapped by a Japanese soldier. Emi lives out her life as a haenyeo as well. There are some nice diving scenes interspersed throughout the narrative for the reader to really get a feel for what living as a haenyeo is like.
I highly recommend White Chrysanthemum, but with reservations. Know what you are getting yourself into before you read it.