White Chrysanthemum tells the story of two sisters in Japanese-occupied Korea. When the story opens, their family is living on Jeju Island, which I only know through my Korean students as a holiday destination. Although Japanese occupation is harsh, with enforced Japanese names and Japanese language, the family of four is living simply but happily. The women in the village are haenyeo, skilled freedivers who harvest abalone, oysters, sea urchins and other sea life, and support themselves through what they find.
Elder sister Hana lets herself be spotted by a Japanese soldier to distract him from seeing her little sister, Emi. Her storyline tells what happens after she is captured and taken away to be a “comfort woman” at a Japanese army brothel.
Their mother, who knows what happens to pretty girls under Japanese occupation, does her best to shield her younger daughter from the truth. For Emi, her beloved sister disappears one day, and is never spoken of by their family. Emi’s storyline begins when she’s a grandmother, secretly looking for her sister, and her life is revealed in flashback.
This is an amazing novel, even when it’s upsetting. Some parts are a little hard to read, simply because the forced marriage, the repeated rapes of “comfort” women, and the wartime starvation aren’t plot devices for fictional Hana and Emi, they’re actual experiences for real women. The story moves through Jeju Island, Manchuria, Mongolia, and other places affected by the war, but not necessarily the first places that spring to mind (at least not for me), and I was very interested in seeing a new part of history.