Kiriyama Prize contending author Nicole Mones mixes things up deeply in her fourth novel, Night in Shanghai (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
An African American jazz musician from Baltimore is recruited to lead an all black jazz orchestra in Shanghai in 1936. Once there he discovers his life has taken a startling turn. Where he had struggled mightily back in the States — against both poverty and racism — he discovers that, in Shanghai he is revered and can reach for the highest heights.
While there, his life becomes entangled with that of the beautiful, educated and forbidden Song Yuhua. While Song initially appears obedient to the most powerful crime boss in Shanghai, it develops that she is secretly a spy.
To this already intriguing set up of characters, Mones mixes in the onset of the Second World War and a sea of change that will alter the very face of Shanghai — and in some ways the world — for ever.
Whether or not you recall her name, this is a storyteller whose voice we trust in matters of the recently historical. Not only is she the author of the stellar Lost in Translation and two other novels, her non-fiction work has appeared in the New York Times magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and Gourmet magazine and she is a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.
Mones has said that Night in Shanghai is the result of extensive research. The novel is based on historic events including China’s role during the Holocaust when it became the only nation to welcome all Jews who managed to get there. Aspects of this are dramatized in the book. Mones’ genius comes in her attention for detail and her ability to sort out which of the vast array of facts she must search through will give the book its verisimilitude. And while Jazz Age China leaps to life for us, it never bogs down in encyclopedic overexplanation.
Night in Shanghai is a riveting, entertaining and illuminating look at a moment that has largely been lost from history. ◊