Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones was recommended on a thread discussing The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden on the Goodreads group, African American Historical Fiction. I recently read and reviewed The Book of Harlan on this blog here. These novels are linked by their African American musician protagonists and the fact that they both take place in World War II. I mentioned the current popularity of WWII fiction in my last review. This blog is demonstrating that trend since I am now reviewing three WWII books in succession.
Unlike The Book of Harlan and Karolina's Twins, Night in Shanghai doesn't centrally deal with the Holocaust. There is a plot strand devoted to the Holocaust, but it isn't the major focus of the novel. I already knew that the situation for Jews in WWII Shanghai was unique. I had an instructor in college who fled Germany in the 1930's and took refuge in Shanghai. It was from him that I first learned that Shanghai had been a major haven for European Jews and Communists during WWII. It seems evident that this happened with the consent of the Japanese occupiers of Shanghai. What isn't entirely clear is why Shanghai accepted so many refugees from the Nazis. I hoped to gain some insight into this situation from reading Night in Shanghai.
I should not have been surprised that one of Shanghai's Triads was so prominent in the plot and that a Triad owned jazz clubs. The Triads were powerful criminal organizations equivalent to the Italian or Russian Mafia. The Triad brought Thomas Greene, the protagonist, to Shanghai in order to become the band leader at one of their jazz clubs. The Triad didn't care about race or ethnic background. They cared most about loyalty and profit. So Thomas Greene was treated as the equal of other musicians for the first time in his life. For African American musicians, Shanghai seemed to be paradise. It was very understandable that even when the war began to devastate the city, some were not eager to return to discrimination and segregation in the United States.
There was also a romance in this novel, but it was somewhat peripheral. This is not a romance novel. The relationship existed for plot and thematic reasons. There is no HEA (Happily Ever After). The female protagonist had her own priorities and Thomas Greene respected them. To me, this showed that he really did love her. I really appreciated that Thomas' feelings toward her freed him musically. The sentimental part of me wished that she believed in the romance more than she did, but I could see why Nicole Mones chose otherwise for these characters. Other readers disagree. I have seen reviews that are deeply critical of this book's ending. I found it both chilling and bitterly ironic.
I thought this book was original and that Nicole Mones showed us hard truths because perfection isn't possible. Night in Shanghai is the best historical fiction that I've read in the first half of 2016.