I was provided with a copy of White Chrysanthemum by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for my honest review. The following opinions are my own. White Chrysanthemum will be released on January 30th.
Prior to reading White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht, I was completely ignorant about the issue of “comfort women” during World War II, a fact that surprised me, as I am frequently drawn to historical fiction, in particular books that focus on women’s trials during World War II. After reading White Chrysanthemum, I now understand why the people of Korea have pressed for an official apology from Japan in recent years.
Mary Lynn Bracht’s book is genuinely heartbreaking. Through the stories of the sisters, Hana and Emi, Bracht made the experience of the comfort women become more than news headlines. White Chrysanthemum tells those stories through two different time periods–Hana’s experiences during World War II and Emi’s experiences as she visits her adult children in 2011. Throughout both of those time periods, the sisters experience frequent flashbacks that help readers understand their lives and individual histories. Hana and Emi grew up in a village famous for its haenyeos, female divers who provide food and financial stability for their families, and are both expected to follow in their mother’s footsteps and become haenyeos themselves. Hana has always been warned to stay hidden from Japanese soldiers, but when she sees a one headed toward her younger sister, she places herself in danger in order to get her sister safely hidden away from him. As a result, she is captured and becomes one of the “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers in a brothel, far away from home. As Emi later nears the end of her life, she realizes she needs to confront the past she locked away and seek closure for her sister’s disappearance.
I will admit that I struggled with the first part of White Chrysanthemum and nearly abandoned it as a result. I am ultimately glad that I decided to forge ahead, and in the end, I found that I enjoyed reading this book. Emi’s journey was incredibly rewarding to me, and the focus on familial bonds and tradition made this a fulfilling read. In addition, I am grateful to Bracht for exposing me to the existence of comfort women, and she handled the evils of war in as fair of a way as possible. Yes, she portrays the Japanese soldiers as evil and cruel, but she also points out the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers, the American military, and even South Koreans throughout the book. Bracht was successful in her effort to show that war invokes horrendous acts from all sides.
However, there were two primary issues that limited my ability to enjoy the book for the first 1/3 or so.
First, the narrative style took some time to become comfortable for me. Although there is a fair amount of action that takes place throughout the book, that action is interrupted quite frequently by flashbacks. Most of those flashbacks went a little something like this: She saw/smelled/felt ___________, and she immediately remembered __________ (followed by a detailed memory). There were many times that the flashbacks felt forced, and as a result, the book felt disjointed throughout. Once I grew accustomed to the style, I came to expect the flashbacks and was able to settle into the book a bit more, but they still never quite felt like they fit seamlessly.
The second, and most important, aspect of White Chrysanthemum that took some adjusting for me was the graphic nature of the way Bracht describes the violence inflicted upon the comfort women. I understand that such horrendous acts are central to the story and help readers understand the true horror of the lives of the women who endured those acts, but the scenes where Hana is raped were incredibly difficult to read. Yes, they made her story all the more heartbreaking, and yes, I understand that those things really happened to the women who lived through the very real experience Bracht based her book upon, but they just felt excessive at times, and I can see that they could potentially be very triggering for those who have experienced sexual abuse. I don’t feel that the detail and frequency of those scenes was totally necessary, and I believe that the same emotions could have been evoked from readers in ways that were more sensitive and less sensational.
I’m ultimately glad that I did not abandon White Chrysanthemum. Had I not continued forward, I would have missed out on the powerful message behind the story, and it is a story that needs to be told.