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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
Imelda’s Secret by Liza Gino is a story of buried pain and suffering by the young women who were raped repeatedly by the Japanese invaders during WWII all over Asia. Euphemistically referred to as “comfort women”, these young Asian girls from China, Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere were treated horrifically by the invading Japanese soldiers. Although many would die, many more would live beyond the “liberation” in constant shame and often familial rejection for what had been done to them. It wasn’t until the 1980s that these women, now elderly, began to unite, speak up, and support each other. Their main desire, above all else, was to receive a formal apology from the Government of Japan, something they still long for. This story follows the lives of two Filipina cousins, Imelda and Gloria, from a wealthy family and traces their lives pre-war, during the war, and post-war. Both cousins are incredibly close and their post-war lives take them to San Francisco, where Gloria “comes out” as a “comfort woman” and begins to actively work for the women’s welfare and their ultimate goal; a formal apology. Imelda, on the other hand, is reticent to admit her story and although her daughter is active in the organization, Imelda keeps her dark, deep secret to herself. The arrival back in their lives of a Japanese officer who attempted to protect them during the war throws emotions and confusion into the two cousins’ existence.
Imelda’s Secret reveals a horrifying truth of the brutality of war and the use of women as sexual war bounty. It didn’t just happen in WWII but is commonplace in conflicts all over the world. Author Liza Gino’s book sheds light on a disgusting practice that not only is tolerated but in many situations is blithely ignored. One could feel the depth of Imelda’s shame and understand her reluctance to admit to the wartime atrocities perpetrated on her and Gloria. Whilst it was true that Kenji did provide some measure of protection for these two women while he was able to, for many it was an endless hell of constant sexual abuse from which death was sometimes a welcome relief. I appreciated that the author chose not to highlight the abuse in graphic terms and what came shining through this novel was that it was the women themselves who would heal each other with love, support, and friendship. The element of Kenji definitely made the plot more complex and fascinating, so I commend the author for that. As a story that seeks to highlight a grave injustice, this novel serves the purpose admirably. One has to wonder, though, what would it take for the Japanese government to make that act of contrition and apologize to these women, almost all of whom are long gone from this earth?