Book Review: WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Mary Lynn Bracht

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.


9780735214439

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

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  • 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.

Friday Bookbag, 3.30.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a smorgasbord of environmentally conscious sci-fi and family saga literary fiction on offer. Heavy stuff–but they all look like they’ll have a rewarding payoff. Ready? Let’s dive in!


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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9780374104092the plot: An anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist enter a contaminated zone known as Area X that has distorted everything around it, creating astonishing and beautiful natural phenomena. It also threatens all of human civilization. The four women must strive to survive themselves and each other while seeking to uncover Area X’s secrets.

why I’m excited: I saw the movie adaptation of Annihilation in theaters a few weeks ago and was entranced by its combined sense of breathless wonder and creeping dread. As I understand it, the movie is a rather loose adaptation of the book–the first novel in VanderMeer’s creepy eco-thriller Southern Reach trilogy–but I’m excited to immerse myself regardless.

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780735214439the plot: Two Korean sisters struggle under Japanese occupation on the idyllic Jeju Island. In 1943, one sister, Hana, one of the famed haenyeo divers, is captured and forced to become a “comfort woman” for the Japanese army during World War II. In 2011, the other sister, Emi, embarks on a journey to find her.

why I’m excited: I think many Americans either don’t know or forget about Japanese colonization and occupation, especially the horrible (and still-fresh) wounds it enacted on Korea. Mary Lynn Bracht is part of the Korean diaspora–she’s an American of Korean descent who lives in London–and I’m looking forward to reading her take on a neglected part of history that continues to have devastating consequences.

Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia

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cover_9781609453824_1120_240the plot: The bloody death of Clara, daughter of one of southern Italy’s preeminent families, is officially ruled a suicide–but her brother can’t let go. The novel plumbs the depths of moral decay and unscrupulous wealth in modern Italy, and is pitched as a thriller that’s a cross between Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. The novel is translated from the Italian by Anthony Shugaar.

why I’m excited: This one is the biggest risk on my list this week. I love literary thrillers, I love weird family sagas, and I’m always looking to read more books in translation, but I don’t know much about this book or its author, so I’m still a little cautious. Here’s hoping that I love it!

The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

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9781481497299the plot: A city corrupted by overuse of magic is crumbling and under the rule of a vicious tyrant known as The Jolly Mayor; in the face of environmental ruin and overwhelming decadence, the city’s citizens fight back. This book is made up of four interlinked stories about the city and the uprising.

why I’m excited: Allegory much? This book couldn’t be more timely, and I’m sure that’s intentional. Paolo Bacigalupi is incredibly skilled at turning  today’s nightmares into a horrifying (but strangely hopeful) vision of tomorrow. I’m less familiar with Buckell’s work, but I can’t wait to dive into this magical dystopian tale.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!