Publishers Weekly (review date 6 January 1997)
SOURCE: A review of Comfort Woman, in Publishers Weekly, January 6, 1997, p. 61.
[In the following review of Comfort Woman, the critic states, "Though piercing and moving in its evocation of feminine closeness,… the narrative becomes somewhat claustrophobic."]
This impressive first novel [Comfort Woman] by a Hawaii-based writer of mixed Korean and American ancestry depicts one of the atrocities of war and its lingering effects on a later generation. An intense study of a mother-daughter relationship, it dwells simultaneously in the world of spirits and the social milieu of the adolescent schoolgirl who later becomes a career woman with lovers. Beccah is a youngish, contemporary Hawaiian whose Korean mother, Akiko, was sold into prostitution as a young woman and sent to a "recreation camp" to service the occupying Japanese army. Akiko developed a resilience that allowed her to distance herself from the daily plundering of her body; she also developed an intense communication with the spirit world that helped her survive the horror of her experience—and helped her, too, to catch the attention of a visiting American missionary, who married her and fathered Beccah. After his death, mother and daughter live together in Honolulu, Beccah striving for a normal life, Akiko, often possessed, screaming and wailing, by her ghosts and visions. With the help of a flamboyant, ultra-worldly friend who calls herself Auntie Reno, Akiko becomes a seer and fortune-teller. Akiko's flashbacks to her haunted past and Beccah's account of their lives together are told alternately, and it is one of Keller's several triumphs that she is able to render the two worlds so powerfully and distinctly. Though piercing and moving in its evocation of feminine closeness, however, the narrative becomes somewhat claustrophobic, so that the occasional interventions of the cheerfully vulgar Auntie Reno are hugely welcome. A striking debut by a strongly gifted writer, nonetheless.