[27 February 2014]
When Nicole Mones published her first novel, 1998’s Lost In Translation, China was for many Americans a closed door. Mones, who owned a Chinese textile importing business, brought her Mandarin fluency and deep cultural knowledge of China to bear on a novel featuring an American interpreter fleeing the States, creating a bestseller. Two more novels followed, each featuring China. Neither matched Mones’s debut.
Now we have the ambitious Night In Shanghai, a departure from Mones’s earlier works. Where her first three novels featured female protagonists operating in a contemporary setting, here she attempts to recreate a city of nearly a century ago. The historical events and some of the characters are real, adding to a busy storyline. Unfortunately, Mones fails to carry it off.
It is the ‘30s, and Shanghai is a vibrant mix of races, languages, and teeming street life, all set to a vibrant new soundtrack: jazz. American black musicians, chafing under racism in the States, are moving to the more welcoming Shanghai where they may live and perform freely.
All is not rosy. The Japanese military presence is placing increasing pressure on the entire country. Japanese soldiers cluster on Shanghai’s streets. Pockets of idealistic Communists meet clandestinely, plotting to overthrow both the Japanese invaders and Chinese Nationalist rulers.
Night In Shanghai opens with black pianist Thomas Greene. A Virginia native, classically trained by his deceased mother, Greene is scrabbling for employment. An acquaintance introduces Greene to Lin Ming, a passionate jazz lover who hires him to lead a nightclub band in Shanghai.
Mones always throws roadblocks into her characters’ paths. In Lost in Translation, Alice dealt with a racist father. A Cup of Light’s Lia is hearing-impaired and withdrawn. Maggie, the widowed protagonist of The Last Chinese Chef, must contend with a paternity claim.
Thomas Greene, though talented, cannot play by ear, or, most critically for jazz musicians, improvise. Without sheet music he is lost. Greene is rightly concerned about this lack, and frets during the long ocean crossing to China. In the first of too many easy plot solutions, Lin Ming, who is not a musician, inexplicably recognizes Thomas’s deficit, assuring him sheet music will always be available.
No Mones novel is complete without a central female character. Night In Shanghai gives us Song Yuhua, love interest and all-round plucky heroine, Song is a walking stereotype. Beautiful, educated, of good family, Song is outwardly demure, yet secretly defiant. She is Du Yuesheng’s property, handed over by her father in exchange for a gambling debt. Du Yuesheng uses her primarily as an English interpreter, unaware that beneath her lovely exterior seethes the rebellious heart of a Communist spy.
All of Mones’s novels feature obstacle-laden, interracial romances that fail to pan out. I fully expected this of Song and Thomas; Mones did not disappoint.
Song’s naïve political loyalties don’t stop her affair from with Thomas, even as the Japanese move in. And here Night In Shanghai splits between a serious historical work and a silly romance novel.
There is a Chinese dish called Jia Chang Rou Mo Qin Cai, in English, “Send-the-Rice-Down”, comprised of stir-fried ground beef and celery. Jia Chang Rou Mo Qin Cai, is served atop plain white rice, intended to liven it up. The recipe came to mind as I read Night In Shanghai. It is as if Mones chose to take painful material—the Japanese invasion of China, Nazism’s inexorable rise—and make it more palatable by placing pretty characters atop it in a cute little love story. Send the rice down.
As war becomes inevitable, the plot becomes increasingly ridiculous. When Song’s Communist mentors plead with her to find money, she happens on a cache of diamonds. Song and Thomas consummate their affair as Japanese bombs literally rain down… but somehow miss them. Nor do they find being in the middle of a war zone a distraction from being in bed.
Thomas’s sudden ability to improvise—nay—compose—is mind-boggling. When Thomas and his bandmates finally flee Shanghai, we are treated to a suspenseful scene: the group is detained at a Japanese checkpoint, literally leaping on the last boat out as Japanese warships steam into the harbor.
In the novel’s final quarter Mones introduces another plot twist: China’s near-forgotten attempt to rescue German Jews from the Nazis. Ho Feng-Shan, Chinese Counsel to Vienna, written into Night In Shanghai and honored in Israel as a Righteous Among Nations, created “Family Visas” for Viennese Jews, who fled to Shanghai. H.H. Kung, a member of the ruling Nationalist Government, tried in vain to implement a plan that would have resettled 100,000 German Jews on the Chinese/Myanmar border. While these actions are heroic, they do nothing to advance Night in Shanghai’s plot.
If Mones were a lesser writer, with nothing important to impart, a novel like this would be less irritating. But the historical information is presented clearly, compellingly, without any need for the thin characters or their unrealistic behaviors.
Some of the most vivid writing comes when Mones describes meals. Here is Lin Ming at dinner with H. H. Kung. The men dine on: “...bird’s nest soup with pigeon eggs, whelk with chicken liver slices, frogs’ legs braised with thin broccoli stalks for bones, and shad steamed in caul fat with a crystal sauce.”
Here is Lin Ming at dinner with Thomas: “Lin ordered… a rich, milky-white seafood chowder brimming with fish, shrimps, scallops, tofu, thin-sliced sea cucumber, and tangy mustard greens… they had cold plates of pungent steeped cucumbers, gluten puffs with winter mushrooms and bamboo shoots…”
Some media outlets have opted not publish “the negative book review”. While there is never a place for cruelty or personal attacks, there is a place for the negative review—the thoughtful, carefully substantiated one. To paraphrase from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, one may never let rip.
In this case, I know Mones to be a capable storyteller with specialized knowledge most Occidentals cannot claim. This gives her the opportunity to share so much with readers. Instead, she is stooping to the lowest common denominator, couching her information in saccharine garbage, as if pretty girls and a snappy backbeat will send the rice down on one of history’s ugliest moments. As a friend commented to me, the most frightening part is not that Mones is dumbing down her work. It is that many people will not realize the information they are being fed is dumbed down.