During the Second World War the Japanese military introduced a programme to provide sexual services for its troops. Young, often ethnic, women were kept prisoner in special camps where they were employed as "comfort women", a euphemism for being systematically raped and beaten.
American-Korean writer Nora Okja Keller explores this abhorrent practise in her astonishing debut novel Comfort Woman, which, upon its release in 1997, attracted critical acclaim from far and wide.
Through twin narratives, which jump backward and
forward in time, we learn the secrets and private struggles of two
women: Akiko, a Korean refugee living in Hawaii, who has the unnerving ability to channel spirits; and Beccah, Akiko's daughter by an American missionary, who loves her mother deeply but is unable to fully accept her cultural and ethnic heritage.
What Beccah does not know is that her mother was once a comfort woman. This deeply hidden secret manifests itself in Akiko's often insane -- and embarrassing -- behaviour that plagues Beccah for much of her childhood. When most teenage girls are having fun, Beccah is haunted by her mother's absurd kowtowing to the spirits of the dead.
It is only when the secret is revealed that Beccah comes to some kind of understanding of her mother's strange ways...
While this is a confidently written and eloquent tale about the horrors of war and its far-reaching impact on its survivors and their children, it's also a testament to the strength of the mother-daughter relationship even when it is dominated by unexplained pain and fear of both the real and imaginary kind.
I very much enjoyed reading this book, although the dual narratives in which Akiko and Beccah take it in turns to tell their story grated slightly and hindered the overall flow of the book.
The emphasis on the spirit world was also slightly overdone, so that it came to suffocate the rest of the story. I wanted to know more about Akiko's traumatic past -- the hub of the novel -- and less about her traumatic present.
Finally, the discovery of Akiko's secret came too close to the end, so that there was very little exploration of how this bombshell impacted on the rest of Beccah's life.
Despite these flaws Comfort Woman is a disturbing yet moving story, and one that resonates long after the book draws to a close.
This book was chosen for discussion in Reading Matters Online Book Group (Session 10) in April 2007.