”You can be brave and confident as you like, you can convince yourself that you’re invulnerable, that you know what you’re dealing with. You think that it won’t ever really get too serious--that there’ll be some kind of a warning before it goes that far, danger music, maybe, playing offstage, the way you get in films. But it seems to me that disasters aren’t like that. Disasters are life’s great ambushers: they have a way of jumping on you when your eyes are fixed on something else.”
Rape of Nanking
Obsessions are sometimes strangely conceived. We don’t know why something out of an onslaught of information sticks with us and won’t let go of us. For our protagonist Grey growing up in an overly protective home the one thing that slips through all the rigorous controls of her parents is a book, an orange covered book, on the atrocities that happened in Nanking, China in 1937. Maybe the reason she was so interested in what that book had to say was that it talked about an aspect of human behavior that was so far removed from anything else she had ever read about or even thought about.
Nine years, seven months and eighteen days, is how long she has been researching, investigating every nugget of available information about an atrocity that most people would rather leave buried in the past. Nine years, seven months, and eighteen days is how long it has taken her to track down Shi Chongming.
A man with a secret, a devastating secret.
Shi Chongming stood in the doorway, very smart and correct, looking at me in silence, his hands at his sides as if he was waiting to be inspected. He was incredibly tiny, like a doll, and around the delicate triangle of his face hung shoulder, length hair, perfectly white, as if he had a snow shawl draped across his shoulders.
He is a Chinese linguist hired by a Japanese university. He is a survivor of the 1937 slaughter of Nanking. He is the reason that Grey has come from London to Japan. She is chasing down a rumor that he has a short film that confirms and exposes the devastation perpetrated on the Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers.
Shi Chongming denies it, but not convincingly. He puts her off. She adds days to her quest. Nine years, seven months, and twenty days. She is broke. Tokyo even in the 1990s recession is one of the most expensive cities in the world.
A good looking American named Jason finds her in the park and offers her a place to stay. Now Grey is naive, but since she left the confines of her parent’s bubble of protection she has received some knocks, some realizations with tragic consequences that have given her some understanding of how the world works. Men don’t offer to give you shelter without expecting some kind of payment. Jason has his own quirks and Grey soon becomes one of them.
”You’re hiding something.” He raised his arms and used the sleeves of his T-Shirt to wipe his forehead. “It’s easy. I just look at you and I can see it. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ve go the--the instinct it’s something I’m going to like. See I’m a...’ he raised two fingers and lightly tapped his forehead ‘...I’m a visionary when it come to women. I can feel it in the air. My God, my skin.’ He shivered and ran his hands down my arms. ‘My skin just about changes colour.’
‘You’re wrong.’ I wrapped my hands round my stomach. ‘I’m not hiding anything.’
‘Yes, you are.’
He looked at me in amusement...’Of course you’re not.’
Grey is most definitely hiding something.
A lit poster of Mickey Rourke provided the only source of light in Grey’s room in the crumbling house she shares with Jason and a couple of Russian girls.
Jason hooks her up with a Madame Strawberry who dresses like Marilyn Monroe, and has procured the help of a plastic surgeon to increase her resemblance to the Hollywood icon . She runs an upscale nightclub with a Some Like it Hot theme. Grey is not a natural fit for entertaining men, but caucasian hostesses are in short supply, so she is hired on a trial basis.
It turns out she is pretty good at it. In what could have been a disaster she decides to talk about Nanking with a group of men who are the sons of the soldiers that invaded China. They know nothing about the barbarity that was perpetrated by their fathers as they crossed China. These men who when they returned to Japan hugged their wives, their mothers, and their daughters were the same men who brutally raped Chinese women on an epic scale. These men who played games with their sons, and honored their fathers in Japan were the same men who killed so many civilians in Nanking that they had to pile them up in a mound so large that at one point, from a distance, the stack of bodies is mistaken by a resident of the city for Tiger Mountain.
Civilization, our grandest achievement, is so readily abandoned. The veneer of honor is replaced with a total disregard for human life. I wish I could say that what happened in Nanking was just an anomaly, but there are plenty of examples in history where civilized human beings became barbarians.
Grey needs to see that film. It will confirm all she has been working for.
When a man in a wheelchair, a seemingly insignificant event, arrives at the nightclub with an entourage and a nurse of uncertain sexual orientation it quickly becomes apparent to Grey that this is no ordinary man. He is a member of an organization called the Yakuza.
”Anywhere in Tokyo you could be aware of the presence of the yakuza: the underground gangs who claimed to be descendants of the samurai tradition. They were some of the most feared and violent men in Asia. Sometimes it was just the sounds of the bosozoku motorcycle gangs that reminded you of their existence, like a chrome wave rolling down Meiji Dori at dead of night, sweeping everything in front of them, the characters for kamikaze painted on their helmets.”
Even Grey, as naive as she is, knows to be careful. (The quote above reminds me of that scene from the 1989 movie Black Rainwhen the Andy Garcia character is surrounded by yakuza gangsters with samurai swords whipping through the air on motorcycles in a parking garage. One of the most dramatic death scenes on film.)
He was pushing a wheelchair, in which sat a diminutive insectile man, fragile as an ageing iguana. His head was small, his skin as dry and crenulated as a walnut, and his nose was just a tiny isosceles, nothing more than two shady dabs for nostrils – like a skull’s. The wizened hands that poked out from his suit cuffs were long and brown and dry as dead leaves.
Fuyuki may need help getting around, but despite his infirmity his power is undiminished. As the plot thickens Grey discovers that Fuyuki has something that Shi Chongming desperately wants. The only way Grey is going to get to see that film is if she can steal the “potion” that Fuyuki needs to live.
I wouldn’t say I’ve exactly given up on thrillers. I used to read them by the wheelbarrow full, but have found them in recent years to be bloated, too influenced by CGI, and frankly unsatisfactory. Arah-Lynda sent me this book as a recommendation with a compelling wish that I would read it and review it. How could I possibly say no? By the way Arah-Lynda wrote this spectacular review of this book that everyone should read. Arah-Lynda review
Mo Hayder wrote two stories one set in 1937 with Shi Chongming and the other in the 1990s with Grey. Usually when I read a book with two timelines I prefer one or the other and find myself impatiently reading the one that I don’t prefer so I can get back to the one that really has my attention. NOT the case at all here. Both storylines are so compelling that I eagerly gulped down each new revelation in either time period with equal relish.
Nice neck Mo!
Mo Hayder also kept me off balance and speculating endlessly between chapters as to what happened to Grey. How did she end up in a mental institution where a helpful roommate taught her about jigging (new word for me)? Does Grey have a labeled psychotic condition? As the action heats up I was worried about her fragile mental condition and whether each new setback would be the one that put her back in a state of mind that had her institutionalized.
On the other timeline with Shi Chongming and his wife in Nanking, Hayder puts you right there with them starving to death, paralyzed with fear, unwilling to accept what is happening, and finding yourself lifting a rock over your head to do the unthinkable. The pacing is perfect. Hayder strings out the information with such patience. Each new disclosure packs a punch that will leave you dazed. I needed an 8 count more than once to let the latest illumination click into place. Highly recommended. Much more than just a thriller, it is more like a white knuckled LA freeway experience, coupled with an important exposé into the very real tragedy that occurred in Nanking. Highly Recommended!
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!
Will Byrnes wrote an insightful review about the book The Rape of Nanking please don't miss it. Click for Will Byrnes Review