“I am a haenyeo. Like my mother, and her mother before her, like my sister will be one day, her daughters too – I was never anything but a woman of the sea. Neither you nor any man can make me less than that.”
This novel captivated me in a way I really wasn’t expecting. I had been looking for some more Korean-based WWII lit since I my disappointing affair with Pachinko left me gasping for a story I could connect with more easily. If you had similar feelings towards Pachinko, read on my friend, because White Chrysanthemum could end up being the story you’ve been searching for.
It’s 1943 on Jeju island. The occupying forces of the Japanese imperial army do not stop sisters Hana and Emi from joining their mother at the beach every single morning. She is a haenyeo, one of many generations of Korean women who dive down to the depths of the sea each day to gather mussels, seaweed, octopuses and anything else they can get their hands on. They are fiercely strong and independent women, self-sufficient and bloody inspirational, in my mind.
Hana and Emi’s mother is to train them to become haenyeo, just as every generation of women was trained before them. It’s an honour for Hana and Emi, and a great tradition to follow in their ancestor’s footsteps. Emi, as the youngest, isn’t yet a strong swimmer, but Hana is quickly learning the skill. Maybe it’s just because I adore the sea and therefore any book passages that are set in it, but I was immediately invested in this book just from the sea diving alone. This ancient tradition fascinated me, and I could so easily imagine myself down in the depths of the ocean with Hana and her mother, each holding their breath steadfast as they hunted for food. I was completely lost in this world of the haenyeo, a literary homage to these brilliant women… and then everything just got worse … but in a really good kinda way…
This book was – and there’s really no other word to describe it – brutal. It offers a stark look at our not-so-distant history and the real-life crimes committed in times of war. Crimes that aren’t spoken about enough. Crimes that some governments are actively trying to sweep under the rug, and pretend never happened.
Hana goes out diving with her mother one day. Emi stays on the shore, waiting. When Hana returns to the surface to breathe, she looks back to check on Emi, but sees something much more disturbing. Some ways down, there is a Japanese soldier patrolling the beach. Her mother continues hunting below, her sister has not seen the solider. Hana barely has a chance to think about her actions. She frantically swims to shore and grabs her sister, hiding her behind some rocks. And not a moment too soon, as the Japanese solider spots her before she has a chance to conceal herself.
Hana is taken. She has no idea where. But she’s glad it’s her, and not her sister.
What follows is Hana’s story, one that echoes many thousands of real-life women’s, as she is abducted, and taken to serve as a ‘comfort woman’. Told through alternating POVs, we follow Hana’s excruciating story of torture and abuse, and her little sister’s devastation over losing her and determination to solve the mystery of where she went. Both girls’ stories were touching, compelling, emotional and important. Sure, the author’s writing style may have veered to the side of “tell” rather than “show”. And yes, perhaps the characters were not as well-rounded as they could have been. But they were enough. All of it was more than enough. To make me feel for them. Make me feel for the 200,000 supposed women who were taken from their homes and ripped of their innocence by this regime. Their stories were seldom told, most didn’t survive, so many families never even knew what became of their daughters.
White Chrysanthemum is harsh. Its cold and unforgiving, but it’s real and important. And it’s also well-written, compelling and wrought with emotion. As dark as the subject matter is, it’s still enjoyable. For the truth of it all, for the bravery of the characters, for the feelings that we can relate to, and those we hope never to have to.
Read it for the intensity. Read it for your feelings. Read it to honour the women who lost their dignity, their sanity and their lives, whose families never found them, whose stories were never told. Read it for them.
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