White Chrysanthemum memorializes Korean comfort women—women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese occupying forces during World War Two. In her debut novel, London-based Korean-American writer Mary Lynn Bracht explores the effects of these women’s abductions on their families and on wider society, and celebrates the power of women to survive horrific circumstances.
Bracht’s protagonists are haenyeo, female free divers from the southern Korean island of Jeju Island. They are strong, independent women who harvest bounty from the ocean floor to feed their families.
Hana is a haenyeo. At the opening of the novel, Hana is sixteen and her younger sister Emi is still too young to dive, although she too soon becomes a haenyeo. Descriptions of diving, and the haenyeo way of life, occur through the novel, from the opening description of captive Hana’s memories of the ceremony through which she became a fully-fledged haenyeo, to the closing description of Hana diving in a lake in Mongolia. Diving, and resurfacing, are fitting metaphors for the characters’, and Korean society’s, suffering and survival.
One day in 1943, Hana has been diving, leaving Emi on the shore, to guard the catch. When Hana surfaces, she sees a Japanese soldier approaching her sister; it seems inevitable that Emi must be kidnapped. But Hana’s quick-thinking saves her sister; she sacrifices herself, and she, not Emi, becomes the soldier’s victim—first of kidnapping, and then of rape and sustained abuse.
Bracht alternates between chapters set in 1943 which follow Hana’s harrowing story, and chapters set in 2011, which unpeel the lifelong effects on Emi of the loss of her sister. Both sets of chapters are written largely in the present tense, a choice which serves to collapse the gap of over seventy years between the two strands of the novel.
Immediately after her kidnapping, Hana is held captive in a brothel in Manchuria. Here she spends her days being raped by the soldiers—men are allotted 30 minutes each, officers get longer.
The memory of diving now becomes an important gift for Hana. She refuses to drink opium tea, because she wants to keep a clear head:
With a clear head, she has the power to make herself retreat into her imagination. As the men visit her each day she withdraws from reality and sees herself diving deep beneath the ocean, escaping her surroundings. She learns to hold her breath as a soldier invades her body, and she feels as if she is really struggling to breathe before rising to the surface for air to fill her lungs.
The soldier who kidnapped Hana, Corporal Morimoto, develops a fixation for her. He reappears in the Manchurian brothel, where he becomes one of the guards, and where he regularly rapes Hana after hours. He traps her into travelling to Mongolia with him.
Hana’s story would have been one of relentless grimness, and despair, except once she reaches Mongolia, Bracht is careful to provide her with hope, although to spell out the details could spoil the plot. The Mongols’ kindness to Hana, and the moments of grace she experiences with them, offer a welcome counterpoint to the preceding descriptions of rape, and degradation. The distant mountains, and the grasslands of Mongolia provide a sense of freedom for the reader, as well as for Hana, after the confines of the Manchurian brothel. The chapters set in Mongolia perhaps depart from the realism of the earlier parts of Hana’s story, but complete verisimilitude may perhaps have been too much for Bracht, and for the reader, too.
Decades later, in 2011, Emi is coming to the end of a life irredeemably scarred by both the loss of her sister, and also a loveless marriage. Emi has two children, a son and a daughter; both are now in late middle-age.
Emi has for most of her life supressed memories of Hana, but she finds she can no longer do so as she approaches death. Ill and in hospital, she finally tells her children of the existence of their aunt. Bracht’s handling of Emi’s revelation of the secrets that have burdened her so long is deft, and moving.
Emi’s relationship with her daughter, YoonHui, is moving, too. YoonHui was a headstrong child, who refused to become a haenyeo, and dive alongside her mother, instead, she stayed on at school and eventually became an academic:
The day she told Emi that she didn’t want to learn to dive was the worst day Emi ever experienced as a mother.
Now, YoonHui, a woman in her fifties, has recently made it explicit to her mother that she loves her American “friend” Lane.
Bracht links Emi’s memory of YoonHui telling her she wouldn’t become a haenyeo, with her new knowledge about her daughter’s relationship with Lane, with the politics and history of Korea, with the idea of hope eventually overcoming despair:
When Emi looks at YoonHui now, she sees that little girl again, eyes full of determination but also still beseeching her mother’s approval. She has found love—few are blessed with such a gift—and she is happy. Emi has known so little happiness in her own life. Now that democracy and a sort of peace have settled across her nation, it seems only fair that her children should find some happiness. It would be a break in cycle of suffering her country endured for so long.
Hana’s story alone could have provided more than enough material for a novel. The reader may wonder: what are the benefits of including Emi’s story too—other than to have fashionable parallel narratives, in different eras? Various interesting answers present themselves: Emi could stand as an allegory for Korea—the need for the whole nation to assuage guilt, and to recover repressed memories. Her relationship with YoonHui underlines that strength comes from female relationships. She is a survivor, and her survival, along with the hope Bracht provides for Hana, together allow light into what could have been unremittingly dark stories.
Overall, Bracht’s skill and ambition in merging, throughout her novel, the personal and familial, the political, the deeply moving, and the horrific make White Chrysanthemum a thought-provoking read. It should help to ensure that the comfort women are not forgotten, as they recede into history.