A daughter tries to understand her father’s long absences from her life in this effective and accomplished debut.
Cleaning out her father’s scruffy bachelor apartment after his funeral, Anna Schoene discovers his copiously detailed journals. They transport this 30-year-old mother of two from Southern California back to her childhood in Shanghai, where she lived with her mother and father just before WWII. Born in China, the son of missionaries, Joseph Schoene is at once flamboyantly American yet fiercely committed to the land of his birth. The charismatic, dashing chief of a quasi-legal import/export business in Shanghai, he means the world to his more proper American wife and adoring daughter. Enraptured with the city’s sights and smells, he imparts this love to Anna: “My father handed Shanghai down to me as though it were an inheritance, a family treasure meant only for me.” But encroaching Japanese soldiers and floods of refugees make the city less and less tenable until, on the eve of war, Anna and her mother board a ship for America. Joseph resolutely stays behind, insisting that it will all blow over. But soon occupying Japanese troops throw him into a prison camp, where he barely survives. Meanwhile, in California, Anna and her mother are adjusting to a quieter life of school, laundry, and sunshine. Caldwell’s prose is remarkably even and detailed; she seamlessly weaves together Anna’s own memories with those of her father, gleaned from the journals. Many of the Shanghai scenes are undeniably reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but the voice is Caldwell’s own. Anna’s emotionally reticent narration can seem almost stuffy, but it helps keep this from descending into the mawkishness common in such father-daughter tales. And the vivid evocation of Shanghai’s potent sights, sounds, and smells has all the excitement you could want.
An elegant, refined story of families, wartime, and the mystique of memory.