White Chrysanthemum

Written by Mary Lynn Bracht
Review by Sarah Johnson

“Comfort women” is a euphemism for the girls and women forced to serve as prostitutes by Imperial Japanese forces during WWII—perhaps 200,000 in all. Official recognition of their plight was long in coming, and even today, statues commemorating them are controversial; the issue remains a sticking point in Japanese-South Korean relations. Bracht’s debut novel, focusing on two courageous Korean sisters torn apart by the war, unflinchingly explores this subject and its long aftermath.

Her prose is fast-paced and lyrical—not an easy combination to achieve—in her alternating portraits of Emi, an elderly Korean widow in 2011, and her older sister Hana, who had sacrificed herself to protect Emi when Japanese soldiers came walking along the beachfront near their home in 1943. For generations, their family’s women have been divers, haenyeo, on Korea’s Jeju Island, feeding their children with the fruits of the sea. One can sense their strength as they hold their breath for long minutes underwater, and this same strength helps them endure what follows. Transported to Manchuria by train, Hana finds herself trapped in a brothel where each woman is assigned a “flower” name and raped numerous times a day.

Emi’s story, as she boards a plane to visit her children in Seoul, initially seems undramatic in comparison, but subtle points revealing her truth emerge: occasional nightmares, her hesitation about flying (why?), hints at an unhappy marriage. Driving the plot forward are questions about Hana’s fate, and whether the sisters’ lives will ever intertwine again. This emotion-filled literary saga carries readers into the world of Koreans—and Korean women in particular—as they suffer first under Japanese occupation and then their own country’s civil war. It’s difficult to read at times, but compelling all the same, and the author allows a sense of hope to filter through.