September 22, 2020

The Devil of Nanking

By Mo Hayder
Review by
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Part suspense tale, part Joy Luck Club and part Sophie’s ChoiceThe Devil of Nanking is a lyrical novel in which secrets foreshadow the undoing of their bearers, and exposure of the secrets offers redemption. History, folklore and ancient taboos are interwoven seamlessly with the modern-day mystery, which begins when Grey, a young Englishwoman, arrives penniless in Tokyo, nursing a major obsession. Grey, of course, is not her real name. She acquired it from a bedmate at a hospital some years before: “I was grey. Thin and white and a little bit see-through. Nothing at all left alive in me. A ghost.” A ghost with an obsession, however: a scholar’s urge to acquire a rare bit of film footage from the 1937 Nanking massacre.

Before the beginning of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army had invaded China. By winter of 1937, the army had reached Nanking. The atrocities were unspeakable; by some accounts more than 400,000 Chinese were murdered, piled in a mountain of corpses at the city’s edge. More than five decades have passed, but Grey feels that the key to her search lies with Dr. Shi Chongming, a guest lecturer at Todai University in Tokyo, who had been a resident of Nanking at the time of the massacre. In between meetings with the standoffish professor, Grey must find a way to make some quick money, so she accepts a job as a hostess at a trendy Tokyo nightspot. Here she meets an elderly yakuza, a man with a terrible secret. Grey is no stranger to terrible secrets herself, and she is about to uncover yet another with the help of the inscrutable Dr. Chongming.

By way of warning, this is a disturbing book, and there are scenes of graphic (but in no way gratuitous) violence which are necessary to portray such horrific events. By any measure, The Devil of Nanking is a novel that resonates long after the last page has been turned.

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