‘How We Disappeared’ by Jing-Jing Lee

A fractured time narrative set in Singapore, How We Disappeared is a gently told yet visceral tale of history and its consequences, moments of time that change futures and break family bonds.

Jing-Jing Lee talks of Kevin, a bookish, bullied schoolboy who, alone in a hospital ward, overhears a whispered confession from his grandma on her deathbed that changes his family’s life. Lee also talks of the recently widowed Wang Di, a woman who experienced terrible abuse as a young girl during World War II at the hands of the Japanese occupying army. Haunted by events of the past, the two look for understanding as their paths inevitably inch closer and closer.

Lonely and alone, Kevin makes the verification of his paternal grandmother’s secret a school holiday mission. Hidden documents and letters written in a Chinese he does not understand, photographs and tape recordings add to the mystery of Ah Ma’s past. With his father suffering from acute depression, Kevin is only too aware that he cannot expect any support – no matter how many times the boy tries to pluck up the courage to ask. With both parents at work, Kevin slips away from the family apartment to follow leads – even though as a teenage boy he’s not too sure what he’s looking for and where to find it.

An illiterate Wang Di is trying to come to terms with the loss of her husband of 50 years and an enforced move to a new apartment. Singapore is constantly renewing but for the old, poorer communities progress is not always a good thing. A hoarder and renowned throughout the neighbourhoods new and old, Wang Di is ostracised by her neighbours. Intertwined in her struggles of today are tales of a war time past and the horrors of imprisonment with other young ‘comfort women’ serving up to 50 Japanese soldiers a day. The shame of this past continues to haunt Wang Di.

Wholly absorbing, whilst Jing-Jing Lee’s novel occasionally falls into repititive over-indulgence, How We Disappeared is a deeply affecting and effective interwoven series of narratives of family, guilt, reconciliation and acceptance.