Review: Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Night in Shanghai by Nicole MonesNight in Shanghai by Nicole Mones
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 4, 2014
Genres: Historical
Pages: 278
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
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three-stars

In 1936, classical pianist Thomas Greene is recruited to Shanghai to lead a jazz orchestra of fellow African-American expats. From being flat broke in segregated Baltimore to living in a mansion with servants of his own, he becomes the toast of a city obsessed with music, money, pleasure and power, even as it ignores the rising winds of war.

Song Yuhua is refined, educated, and bonded since age eighteen to Shanghai’s most powerful crime boss in payment for her father’s gambling debts. Outwardly submissive, she burns with rage and risks her life spying on her master for the Communist Party.

Only when Shanghai is shattered by the Japanese invasion do Song and Thomas find their way to each other. Though their union is forbidden, neither can back down from it in the turbulent years of occupation and resistance that follow. Torn between music and survival, freedom and commitment, love and world war, they are borne on an irresistible riff of melody and improvisation to Night in Shanghai’s final, impossible choice.

In this impressively researched novel, Nicole Mones not only tells the forgotten story of black musicians in the Chinese Jazz age, but also weaves in a stunning true tale of Holocaust heroism little-known in the West.

Fairly recently, I read Three Souls by Janie Change, which touched on this same time period, the 1930s through the early parts of World War II, in China. While I’ve read a lot set in that time period, the Chinese setting was almost entirely new. In addition to Three Souls, I’d read a book, The Far Side of the Sky, a couple of years ago, which is about Jewish refugees in Shanghai. Night in Shanghai takes an entirely new perspective on the war and 1930s China, and is an intensely dark and thought-provoking read.

Shanghai is in the late 1930s a free port, chopped up into zones for different nationalities. Anyone could come to Shanghai, and it’s a veritable cultural melting pot. The central character, Thomas Greene, is a classical pianist recruited to come lead a jazz band in Shanghai. Thomas is American and black, and the idea of living somewhere he won’t be racially discriminated against holds a lot of appeal. While he does still stand out in Shanghai, he’s respected and interesting.

In America, Thomas felt like a failure and a sell out; he also felt like he wasn’t all that talented. In Shanghai, he comes into his own. While he never becomes a virtuoso, he gains in skill and confidence. He makes friends, falls in love for the first time, and builds a home for himself in this new country. Making Thomas the main character, so much as there is one, is an interesting choice and puts the different sorts of racism in each country on stark display.

The narration is, minus brief sections from the perspective of Song at the beginning, middle and end of the book, entirely in third person, rotating through a large host of characters. This serves to present a larger view than just the very limited one that Thomas would have. What he sees of Shanghai is certainly fascinating and illuminating, but the musical scene is so little of what was happening.

Mones really gets into the local, national, and global politics. It was a nice refresher on a lot of things I’d forgotten from college, without feeling like a textbook or at all preachy. China was torn in so many directions at this point, both internally and externally. Despite that, Shanghai offered the largest number of Jews refuge from Nazi Germany, though they came so close to doing more but that plan got squashed due to pressure from Hitler.

In Night in Shanghai, Mones presents an even-handed and compelling look at the myriad tensions of pre-WWI through early WWI China. The book moved a bit slowly for me as I wasn’t emotionally invested in the characters, but it’s one I’m very happy to have read as the setting and subject matter is so vivid and unique.

Favorite Quote:

Lin loved this part of the evening in Shanghai, the first hour of true dark, for night was when the city’s enchantments beckoned, from the genteel to the most depraved, anything, so long as you could pay. Shanghai at night was not a place, exactly, but a dream-state of fantasy and permission, and to Lin Ming, no place embodied it quite like the Canidrome.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

gif piano playing

2 responses to “Review: Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones”

  1. Cayce says:

    THAT COVER!! *stares*

    I’m not entirely convinced this book would be for me, but it’s definitely a book I’d borrow if I saw it in the library 🙂

    *stares some more at the cover*
    Cayce recently posted…10 reasons why you should read The HumansMy Profile

  2. This book looks beautiful! Can’t wait to read it!
    I’ve always been a sucker for colonial grandeur.
    Here’s Johnny recently posted…[S4E7] Arya needs to work on her bedside manner.My Profile

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