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American Jazzmen Swing Overseas In 'Shanghai'

Nicole Mones first visited China in 1977 as a textile merchant before she began writing fiction and nonfiction on the country.
Owen Carey / Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Nicole Mones first visited China in 1977 as a textile merchant before she began writing fiction and nonfiction on the country.

The thing about historical novels is that above all else, they must stand as good fiction. If not, the reader's supposed trip back into the past isn't worth the time or the token. The writer must give the feel and flow of the time in question in a manner that seems natural; characters on a street corner shouldn't remark to themselves about all of these 1922 motor cars rolling past, nor Roman legionaries point out that an axe is bronze when it should be steel.

You might also imagine that, given the difficulties of knowing the past, the closer to home the period is, the easier it is for the writer to reconstruct – but that's not always the case. Nicole Mones' new Night in Shanghai raises all these questions, not because the novel fails at recreating Shanghai in 1936, on the verge of the Japanese invasion — but precisely because it succeeds in such a serious yet entertaining fashion. Mones opens with a broad public view that embraces the political, historical and commercial aspects of life in Shanghai in this tenuous period. We find ourselves in an open city, partly controlled by foreign governments and home to an international mélange of – among others — Americans, British, French, White Russian refugees and Jews.

Shanghai also serves as home to nightlife palaces like the Canidrome, "with its ballrooms, restaurants, gambling parlors, mah-jongg dens, and a full-sized covered dog track," where locals and foreigners alike fiddle while the Japanese fires are about to burn everything to the ground. Or maybe I should say jam or swing rather than fiddle: Kansas City jazz bands flourished here, contracted by Shanghai entrepreneurs who worked for the major mob that ran every nighttime pleasure and vice in the city.

Into this international stew comes Thomas Greene, a classically trained African-American pianist from Baltimore who's taken a job as a band-leader for one of the city's most popular groups. Greene's got to do on-the-job training – he can read music, but he can't improvise, and he doesn't know how to swing. Soon after arriving he catches a glimpse of Song Yuhua, a young, educated Chinese woman whose father, to wipe out a gambling debt, gave her in bondage to the head of the Shanghai mob. Greene leads the high life in a lavish private house worlds away from the Baltimore lodgings where he grew up, while Song, dreaming of a new China, takes up with the Communist underground. Only when the Japanese march in and city wavers on the verge of major collapse in do their lives seriously intertwine.

Both young, awkward, gifted and smart, Thomas and Song make for an odd but brilliant pair of lovers. Even as the gloom of war settles over their once fabulous city, they light up the pages of this novel. Night in Shanghai is an intelligent historical romance made with forceful insight into the characters and a telling sense of detail. Historical fiction at its best, the book gives us a deep impression of how it must have felt to live in this dangerous period — and, folks, it swings.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.
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