Moving between the years 1943 and 2011, White Chrysanthemum is told from the perspectives of Korean sisters Hana and Emi, both of whom grow up under Japan’s oppressive colonial rule. In 1943, Hana sacrifices herself for Emi and is captured by Japanese soldiers as a “comfort woman”: a sex slave for the Japanese army. In 2011, Emi travels to Seoul to search for Hana one last time. Love, war, family, and violence are big, messy themes to play with, but Mary Lynn Bracht tackles them with aplomb, and from an unusual and necessary angle. This novel is precisely told, always-suspenseful, ambitious, and moving, and Bracht is a debut author to watch.
You can read my full review below.
White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht
- publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
- publication date: January 30, 2018
- length: 320 pages
- cover price: $26.00
So many years have passed since the war ended, since the protests began, yet the crimes still go unpunished. What does it require to deserve an apology? To give one? Emi touches her chest. Her heart unclenches. Today’s demonstration is special, the one thousandth protest.
White Chrysanthemum, page 78
The haenyeo divers of Jeju Island, a province just south of the Korean mainland, are celebrated as real-life “mermaids“; they train to hold their breath for up to three minutes, diving deep into freezing waters year-round in order to harvest fresh seafood like conch, seaweed, urchins, and oysters. In White Chrysanthemum, Jeju Islander sisters Hana and Emi train as haenyeo with their mother. Their lives under Japanese occupation are hard, but the sea gives them a measure of strength, independence, and respect that most Korean women in 1943 could only dream of.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save Hana. The 16-year-old manages to hide her younger sister Emi from raiding Japanese soldiers, but is kidnapped herself and taken far from home to serve as a “comfort woman“: a sexual slave for the Japanese army.
After the introductory chapter documenting Hana’s love of her sister and her shamanistic induction ceremony as a haenyeo (expressly forbidden by the Japanese), the narrative splits: one half stays in 1943, following Hana’s capture and hellish new life as a comfort woman, and the other half jumps to 2011, following an elderly Emi as she seeks news of her lost sister during the historic (and ongoing) Wednesday protests at the Japanese embassy demanding reparations for comfort women.
The split narrative is risky: if Hana is still missing to Emi in 2011, we know she won’t make it back to her family in 1943, which threatens to undermine the novel’s tension. Luckily, this structure actually serves to modulate the horrors documented in White Chrysanthemum, giving us respite in Emi’s story just when Hana’s threatens to be too much to bear.
This novel is Mary Lynn Bracht’s debut, and it is a tremendously auspicious one. The existence of comfort women wasn’t widely known until the first Korean woman came forward in 1991–over 50 years after the practice began–but the history is still foggy to many Americans. (It certainly was to me.) Similarly, I would venture that many, if not most, non-Koreans don’t know about the brutal history of the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation or the Korean War that immediately followed.
This is all to say that Bracht has a lot of ground to cover in establishing her narrative, but she’s more than up to the task. The history is explored with a light, eloquent touch that leaves plenty of room for character and plot development.
White Chrysanthemum is absolutely harrowing; like I wrote in my review of The Tangled Lands last week, readers who are triggered by sexual assault and violence should probably avoid this book. Rape, torture, and violent deaths are written about in graphic detail that at times made me feel physically sick.
What amazed me about Bracht’s skilled, precise writing, however, is that these events never feel sensational or cruel. White Chrysanthemum is not an “issue novel” seeking to twist the knife and make you feel as much pity and pain as possible; instead, Hana and Emi’s stories feel powerful and fully realized, as if Bracht is merely a documentarian uncovering the forgotten lives of real women. (In a sense, she is.)
A few elements work less well than others. There’s a tragic twist to Emi’s story about halfway through the book that came off as cheap to me–I think Bracht was trying to add urgency, but I thought the story would have been just as good without it. There are times when Bracht moves back and forth between fantasy and reality, particularly in Hana’s story, that feel more confusing than dreamy. (It makes sense that Hana would dissociate under the circumstances, but it doesn’t make for good reading.) And Hana’s story undergoes so many twists and turns that I felt a bit of whiplash when it finally concludes.
But the payoff more than compensates for these weaknesses. Bracht has a Korean mother and grew up in a community of expat Korean women, and after I turned the last page, that detail was utterly unsurprising to me: White Chrysanthemum reads like it was written by an attentive, interested listener. It is tremendously empathetic, especially to the women at its core but even to its villains, and it confronts difficult events head-on without simplifying the people who experience them to one-note tragedies.
When Emi tries to tell the truth about Hana at last, her family doesn’t respond with awe or wonder–they respond with confusion and even a little cruelty. That was the detail that clinched the book for me. Family secrets are exciting to readers, but they’re astonishingly painful to the people who live them, hear about them, and must re-evaluate their core selves around them.
Bracht dives to the heart of Korean family secrets in this debut, which I hope marks the beginning of a long and fruitful career for her. White Chrysanthemum will stay with me for a long, long time. 4/5 stars.
My copy of White Chrysanthemum came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.