‘Night in Shanghai’: star-crossed lovers in a glittering city
The city of Shanghai is the star in Nicole Mones’ new novel, “Night in Shanghai,” the story of an American jazz musician and his Chinese lover in the glittering city’s final days before World War II.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Night in Shanghai” will appear at 7 p.m. April 2 at the Everett Public Library, 2702 Hoyt Ave., Everett; free, sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
‘Night in Shanghai’
by Nicole Mones
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., $25
More well-crafted history lesson than lyrical novel, Nicole Mones’ “Night in Shanghai” takes place during a fascinating period: late 1930s Shanghai, as World War II hangs like a shadow over a hectic celebration of American jazz music.
Thomas Greene, one of two central characters, is an African-American piano player from Baltimore. Though he’s more of a classicist than a jazzman, he’s recruited to Shanghai to become bandleader for the popular Kansas City Kings. There he meets Song Yuhua, a beautiful and intelligent Chinese woman with trademark gardenias nestled in her hair. Though she’s not free — she is bonded (to pay her father’s gambling debts) to crime lord Du Yuesheng, not so much as his mistress as “translator and arm-piece” — Song and Thomas fall in love.
You can practically hear the soundtrack swelling around these two, and see the glitter of Shanghai nightlife; of a time when the great Chinese city swung to a big-band beat, played mostly by dark-skinned Americans in swanky ballrooms to audiences happy to dance all night. But there’s danger in those sparkling lights. As Thomas is warned before his departure east: “Say the Japanese fighting the Chinese, and the Chinese fighting each other. Say gangsters running the city. People disagree, they end up dead, so you best play your music and keep clear of it. Hear?” But of course he can’t keep clear, and his exotic new life is shattered by the Japanese occupation and the onset of war.
It’s both a strength and a weakness of “Night in Shanghai” that the city itself quickly becomes a more interesting and nuanced character than either Thomas or Song. Both seem, by book’s end, still intriguing but opaque; their dialogue too often feels stilted. These star-crossed lovers, meeting while caught between two different worlds, seem to communicate better through music — Thomas finds, in a touching scene that cries out to be the centerpiece of a movie, that he can play his life story on the piano easier than he can tell it.
But it’s Shanghai that lingers when the book is put down. Portland author Mones, author of three previous novels set in China, based “Night in Shanghai” on true events — the reader learns a great deal, for instance, about China’s welcoming policy toward Jews during the Holocaust — and fills it with historical characters and places. (Only four of the book’s numerous characters, including Thomas and Song, are entirely fictional.) Seattle makes a brief, fascinating cameo appearance early in the book. Thomas makes his way to “that mist-shrouded city” in search of work, and is toiling as a janitor at the Blue Rose jazz club on Yesler Way when he’s recruited.
You read “Night in Shanghai” impressed by its meticulously research and drawn in by its sweep — those crowded, humid Shanghai streets seem to live and breathe. Though it never quite swings like those long-ago jazzmen, it has its own quiet beat; one of history’s footsteps marching, whether or not the characters can hear.
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.