No comfort to be found in the past

Jessie Nielson reviews White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht. Published by Penguin Random House.

Mary Lynn Bracht is an American writer of Korean descent, and her debut novel is set against the backdrop of  1940s Japanese-occupied Korea.

The story begins on and returns to the semi-tropical island to the south of the Korean mainland, Cheju Island.

Here is the matriarchal tradition of haenyo, women of the sea, or diving women.

Since these women  were the main food providers on this traditionally largely self-sufficient island, they have always been held in high esteem. It was a point of honour to carry on this tradition.

Bracht looks to the memories of her mother’s family in this environment as she documents a time of crisis in Korean history.

White Chrysanthemum traces the  suffering of two young haenyo and their family during a time of brutal Japanese occupation and complicated divisions between northern and southern political alliances during  World War 2.

In a Korea when only the Japanese language is allowed and  people are reassigned Japanese names, the local Cheju fisherpeople try to avoid confrontation.

However, while young sisters Hana and Emi are on the beach and in training as divers, Hana is kidnapped by a Japanese corporal who from then on governs her every movement.

Hoisted on to a train  under the category of "necessary supplies" on the inventory checklist,  she begins her  nightmare as a sex slave or "comfort woman" under the new name, Sakura.

Keeping her real name hidden as the only piece to save of herself, she perceives herself as no more than a broken image.

Her imprisonment, based on the similar experiences of tens or hundreds of thousands of women, takes her through Manchuria and beyond, as she tries  to escape.

Emi, meanwhile, also suffers greatly in the violence of localised war, witnessing and fleeing atrocities.

The end of Japanese occupation does not mean peace. The island was the site of a  massacre in 1948, following the Cheju Uprising, which left up to 30,000 dead.

Looking back, Emi is well aware of the deep wounds of history all around her as she boards a plane for commemorations in Seoul, for beneath the airport are the remains of hundreds of massacre victims, recently discovered.

Throughout her life she, like other survivors, has been emotionally crippled by "han", the Korean notion incorporating survivor guilt and the accompanying shame.

In order to cope, Emi has kept her early memories shut up inside her, and this silence causes a growing wedge between herself and her children, who struggle to understand their mother.

The title reflects the flower of death and mourning.

Bracht’s first novel is immensely involving.

She tells a gripping story, informed by  personal investment.

"Comfort women" have only been able to tell their stories since the early 1990s.

This is due to a combined legacy of shame, and a nation embedded in Confucianism, as well as denial by the persecutors.

History and historiography continue to lay out and rewrite these women’s tragedies, and White Chrysanthemum is a hugely important and brave work in detailing the deeply personal testimonies of two such individuals.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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