Shanghai: A Novel

Image of Shanghai: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 25, 2024
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“The strength of Shanghai is in its skillful plotting, with numerous twists and turns as befitting this tumultuous period in the city’s history.”

Trieste, Italy. 1939. Daniel Lohr has fled Berlin after his group of Jewish resistance fighters have been killed or are being tortured by the Nazis, so that Daniel fears he will be captured next. About to board the SS Raffaello to escape, he joins other refugees of all nationalities as they crowd onto the ship bound for Shanghai, the only place where a visa isn’t required, the only place where he has family left: his uncle Nathan who has paid for his first-class passage. Daniel has ten Reichsmarks, a single suitcase, and—so far—his life.

Daniel’s compatriot told him: “You have to survive, or the rest of it won’t matter. So don’t take chances.” Also: “Someone will betray you. So don’t give him anything to betray. Your real name. Who you are.“ Daniel takes this warning seriously, though his traumatic experiences have already left him wary and cautious.

On the ship, he meets Leah Auerbach and her mother; Florence Burke, an American; and Colonel Yamada, a high-ranking official in the Kempeitai, the military police, which is similar to the Gestapo. Daniel suspects Yamada has been consulting on “methods” in Germany and is returning to Shanghai to implement them. The city, while a haven for many, is fraught with conflict because the Japanese have become the overseers, and the Chinese are divided between the factions of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-tung (Communists). In the mix, are Europeans, British, and Americans, who are living in the International Settlement, some trying to do business amid the warring gangs that roam the city.

During dinner, the passengers exchange remarks like they’re playing a conversational chess game. Florence Burke tells Daniel, “Shanghai is like an island . . . surrounded by the Chinese. Which is to say, the Japanese, since they won the war.” When asked, Yamada says, “Japan has no wish to go to war with America. Or the British Empire.” The reader knows otherwise and probably so does he. Leah and Daniel are immediately attracted to each other and begin a clandestine affair.

When they reach Shanghai, Leah and her mother, who are almost penniless, depart for the “heim,” the Jewish enclave, and Daniel’s uncle Nathan greets him. Nathan owns casinos and night clubs and offers his nephew a job with the intention of having Daniel replace him. Daniel soon learns about the internecine battles between the Chinese and their gangs and the Japanese and how each must be given a “squeeze” in order to remain in business. Shootings are commonplace, with each group armed and protected by security guards. Daniel thinks, “Shanghai [was] dancing on the rim of a volcano.”

Joseph Kanon has selected a perfect location for intrigue, danger, and treacherous political dynamics. As Daniel becomes mired deeper and deeper with two powerful Chinese players and Yamada, the noose around his neck tightens so that he realizes he may be trapped and possibly murdered.

Where Kanon is less adroit is his writing style. Most likely to create propulsive action, he employs a staccato structure both in the narrative and in dialogue, which becomes tiring and sometimes confuses the meaning. Verbs are often omitted in favor of an onslaught of phrases rather than sentences, many with awkward arrangements. “‘So he was alone. In that house. To think of it that way. When it was always Katia and you. Everybody busy. It was the same growing up. Busy.’” Too many short bursts; too many “it” uses that aren’t clearly linked to their subjects. The absence of identifying dialogue tags also makes it difficult to ascertain who is speaking.

The strength of Shanghai is in its skillful plotting, with numerous twists and turns as befitting this tumultuous period in the city’s history. Kanon ably depicts the combustible elements fighting each other as well as the contrasts between the rich—both Chinese and international residents—and the impoverished population. The novel teems with scheming characters, feints and deceptions, and an interwoven romance which will gratify readers.