In his first novel, historian Clifford (Retreat from China, not reviewed) sets fictional characters in motion against the backdrop of Shanghai during two explosive historical moments: 1989 and 1925-27. Harvard Chinese history PhD Matthew Walker teaches at a small northern Massachusetts college and hopes that the book he's working on about Shanghai will boost his chances for tenure. Returning to the city in 1989 to complete his research, Matthew has also promised to find out what happened to his girlfriend Laura's great- uncle Simon, a writer who disappeared from Shanghai in 1927, just after a Communist uprising was put down by the Nationalists. Against a contemporary background of student cries for democracy in Tiananmen Square, Matthew is gradually compelled to take a political stand, as was Simon, who, we discover from the diary he kept (interwoven in the text with Matthew's adventures), led a double life. Clifford compellingly describes the charged atmosphere of 1920s-era Shanghai--filled with revolutionaries, foreign police, spies, and drug lords--and offers thoughtful insights into Chinese character, language, and politics. But the author is better at placing people in a historical context than evoking personal dramas: The scenes between Matthew and Laura before he leaves for Shanghai drag on for too long, as does the build-up to an explanation of Simon's significance, although the pacing picks up once chunks of the writer's past are revealed. At times Clifford's prose is gratifyingly reflective, even lyrical, but more often it has a dry academic tone. Like a Chinese painting in which humans seem dwarfed by a vast natural backdrop, the book works as a social study rather than a portrait of individual characters. A rewarding read for those curious about China, but not good enough for people who expect more from fiction than a history lesson.