Review: Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones in Shanghai by Nicole Mones (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, 288 pages)

You know that novel that lets you down because of the plot, or characters, or simply the author's style, but it deals with such interesting historical events that you want to run out immediately and buy its nonfiction equivalent?

This was that kind of novel.

Now, don't get me wrong, all the elements of a fascinating story were present: an African-American musician from Baltimore (Thomas Greene) recruited to play jazz in Shanghai during the 1930s, the Japanese invasion of China just before WWII, and Jews fleeing to Shanghai from the Nazis. Sounds ridiculously interesting, right?

Well, it just didn't have that spark. You know what I mean. The feeling you get when you read a book like Lolita or The Magic Mountain where the language is so vibrant that it almost dances across the page, where language and story meet so perfectly that you find yourself living, not simply reading, the novel.

I've heard the term "workmanlike" bandied about a lot lately, and it fits Night in Shanghai. The love story, involving Greene and Song Yuhua, a native of Shanghai and closet Communist, is somewhat thin, but plausible; the scenes where the Shanghai Green Gang and political figures plot against the Japanese are mildly interesting; and the brief discussion late in the book about Shanghai sheltering its small Jewish community from German officers is fascinating if only because it is little-known history. Basically, the only parts of this novel that rose above the mundane were the descriptions of Greene's musical performances. Whether or not Mones is/was a musician on the side, she sure knows her musical terminology, which she deploys gracefully.

Despite my disappointment with this book, I am ALL OVER this forgotten story of World War II. I mean, Jews in Shanghai ??? Sounds awesome. They still have a synagogue over there. If you're interested in this, read this article from The Atlantic.

And Shanghai jazz? Yeah, I didn't even know that existed, then or now. Take a look at this NPR article on its resurgence.

I've only found a couple of memoirs written by Jews who fled to Shanghai, but I'm going to look into it further. Don't you just love history?!

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