Switching between Korea in 1942, in the throes of and South Korea in 2011, this is the story of two sisters, separated one fateful day on a beach.
Hana is the eldest, a haneyo – female sea diver – who surfaces from the ocean one afternoon to see a Japanese soldier heading along the sand in the direction of her younger sister Emi. Without a thought, the teenager swims to shore to intervene and so begins her capture and life as a “comfort woman”. Taken far away from her family, she is repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers, one of whom, Morimoto, decides he wants her as his wife. Hana forms strong bonds with the other girls and women that surround her but it’s memories of home and the thought of escaping and being reunited with her family, that get her through and day each night. When a chance of freedom presents itself, she grabs it with both hands, despite the huge risks, only to fall into the hands of yet more men whose motives and morals she does not understand.
As a 60 year old, Emi is still coming to terms with the guilt of being left behind and still searching for the sister she lost. She has two children of her own and slowly the story of their father emerges, highlighting another aspect of the war between Korea and Japan. Emi goes each year to Seoul to join a march that remembers the “comfort women”. The visit brings back many painful memories of hurt, which though less physical than that endured by her sister, are nonetheless keenly felt. In fact one of the most powerful aspects of this book is how Bracht captures the grief and loss each of her characters feels.
I found Hana’s story most compelling – and most harrowing – but Emi’s is perhaps the sadder. Both evoke anger and deep sadness, as well as illustrating how the past affects the present. Emi’s relationships with her own children, for example, are shaped in many complicated ways by her feelings about her sister disappearance and the aftermath, including how her own parents responded.
I already knew a little about the war between Japan and Korea and the treatment of the comfort women, which seems in many ways to be the story of legions of women in wars not of their making. But WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM brought it all too life for me, often painfully. This is a book that made me openly weep on a number of occasions so be warned. But it’s also so much more than a story of women as victims. It’s also about women as survivors, the way we connect with others, find hope in the darkest of situations and forge new presents that bring in the light. A beautiful and moving book that I would thoroughly recommend.