White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht review – Korea’s pain

This debut novel reveals how the suffering of Korean ‘comfort women’ in the 20th century still shapes lives today

George Orwell taught us that all writing is political: Mary Lynn Bracht’s debut novel is forthrightly so. White Chrysanthemum is the story of two Korean sisters separated by the second world war. Hana is dragged away by a Japanese soldier to a life of sexual slavery; Emi is left to grow up wondering what happened to her sister. Hana’s narrative covers the war years, while in Emi’s chapters it is 2011, and the elderly Emi is still looking for her sister.

The language is blunt, with every page shouting of wrongs perpetrated. Bracht rejects the old mantra of show, don’t tell; her characters’ pain is shown, told, shown and told again. For example: “Anger and fear swarm through her body, radiating in hot waves to the soldier beside her. He stole her from her seaside home, from everything she knows and loves, and then raped her.” These events have already been described in detail, but Hana obsessively goes over them again in her mind. Indeed, the book forces us to confront the inescapability of these traumas.

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