American and Chinese academics face the horrors of invasion in the early days of World War II.
In this debut historical novel, Zheng draws on his experiences as a researcher at MIT to create Chinese-born Calvin Ren and Massachusetts native John Winthrop, who meet as engineering students in Cambridge. They reunite in Calvin’s hometown of Nanjing to work on China’s nascent military aircraft program. Although John leaves behind a fiancee when he travels to China, he becomes close to Chen May, a teenage acquaintance of Calvin’s. She practices her English with John while he shops for antiques in the market. Their relationship never moves beyond friendship and a few kisses, but John is the one May turns to when nearly all her relatives are killed during the Rape of Nanjing by Japanese forces. They lose touch when he returns to the United States, but May survives the war and pursues justice for her city in the aftermath, while John’s legacy provides education for future generations of Chinese girls. An author’s note explains that Zheng wrote the novel in response to a lack of awareness of the Rape of Nanjing, and an appendix provides resources for further reading on the subject. The novel is solidly grounded in historical research, and notable figures, including Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife, Soong Mayling, make frequent appearances. The book also creates a vivid portrait of 1930s urban China, with its blend of traditional practices and Western influences, and Zheng leaves the reader with clear images of the wine houses, steamed rolls, and everyday objects that make up his characters’ lives. The book excels in dramatic and panoramic moments, like the chaotic evacuation of Nanjing after the attack. The storyline is at times too sprawling, filled with the back stories of characters who do little to drive the plot but serve as victims of Japanese cruelty, but on the whole the book effectively puts a human face on one of World War II’s noteworthy tragedies.
A well-researched and capably written depiction of the Rape of Nanjing and its effects on victims and survivors.