White Chrysanthemum, the debut novel from Mary Lynn Bracht, tells the story of two sisters, brought up on Jeju Island, who were tragically separated in the last years of the Second World War. The elder sister, Hana, is abducted into sexual slavery by a Japanese soldier; Emi, the younger, saved by her elder sister’s sacrifice, remains behind and becomes a haenyeo, following the traditional matrilineal occupation of Jeju Island women.
As the last of the so-called “Comfort Woman” near the end of their days, and the Korean and Japanese governments still struggle to find a final resolution that is acceptable to the victims; and as the haenyeo have been listed as intangible cultural heritage at UNESCO, this is a highly topical time for such a novel to hit the bookshops. And it’s a highly enjoyable read, too, not just capturing the proud, independent traditions of Jeju’s Sea Women and the challenges facing their way of life today, but also, at one point, giving us a real page-turner of an adventure story.
The novel is neatly structured, with alternating chapters focusing on the life of each sister. For the older sister, Hana, we live through her teenage years, seized from her family on a Jeju beach by a Japanese soldier and forced into sexual slavery in a Manchurian comfort station. For the younger sister Emi we are in the present day as she tries to come to terms, in the evening of her life, with the traumas she has had to live through; because, paradoxically although Hana of course suffered hideously under the Japanese, those that stayed behind had to live through the political turmoil of the post war years. In Jeju that included the turmoil variously known as the Jeju Uprising or the 4:3 / Sa Sam / 3rd April incident.
Bracht deals with this fraught period in Korean history sensitively, capturing well the way that the merest suspicion or accusation (true or otherwise) of being a leftist sympathiser could get you imprisoned or executed. Mere association with a victim of this suppression – for example being a spouse or offspring – would mean you yourself could be a suspect for decades afterwards under the Park Chung-hee dictatorship. The silence of those caught up in the Jeju, Suncheon and Yeosu “uprisings” finds its counterpoint in the silence of the “Comfort Women”: the perceived personal and national shame associated with their slavery suppressed discussion of the issue until Kim Hak-soon came forward with her testimony in 1991. As if to emphasise the parallel between these two categories of victims, the narrative arcs of each of the sisters threaten to converge towards the end of the novel, as Emi decides to attend the 1,000th Comfort Women protest outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in an effort to find her long-lost sister.
Those not familiar with Korea’s modern history will be introduced to some of the darker themes behind the South’s growth from poverty into the economic superpower it is now; while those that know the big picture can enjoy the well-structured story line and strong narrative flow, and might even trip over some fresh historical detail along the way, such as how Japan financed its war effort, or the secrets buried under the runway of Jeju International Airport.