Sunday, January 20, 2008

Review: The Devil of Nanking

The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder
2.5 stars

Summary (from Barnes and Noble): Grey, a young Englishwoman with a troubled past including a dramatic mental breakdown and a Carrie-like shame about sexuality, has just arrived in Tokyo, penniless, unprepared, and on a mission. For years she's been obsessed with a rare, possibly fictitious film artifact-a film made by the Japanese during the Nanking massacre, depicting a very specific incidence of torture. Flunking out of graduate school because she did nothing but obsess over the film, she thinks she has found the man who possesses it-Shi Chongming, a Chinese survivor of the massacre now teaching at Todai University in Tokyo-but he will have nothing to do with her.

Then an attractive stranger becomes her angel-hooking Grey up with a place to live, and a job that will have unforeseen consequences, in a high-class hostess bar. Shy and schoolteacherish in dress, Grey gradually learns to embrace her femininity, just as it becomes clear that an old, decrepit, but incredibly powerful yakuza gangster, one of the club's regulars, is the key to gaining Professor Shi's trust, because he has something the professor wants-an elixir of unknown origin, which is keeping his decrepit body alive. If Grey can get the formula, the film is hers. It's a devil's bargain-but who, really, is The Devil of Nanking?

My thoughts: Okay, for technical merit, this book actually gets 4 stars. It was a well-crafted thriller with excellent atmosphere. For example, you can picture every detail of the rambling, spooky, decaying house where Grey lives and well as the neon nightlife of Tokyo. But, Hayder's talent for powerful description extends to every horrifying, disgusting, creepy, stomach-turning person, place, and event in the novel. And that's why it only gets 2.5 - this is an incredibly disturbing book. If I hadn't been reading it for book club, I would have stopped reading it. I just couldn't understand why I was having to read about so much horror - not just during the war, but in present-day Japan, as well. Murders with entrails displayed artistically, rape, cannibalism - basically everything that makes one despair for humankind was in there.

None of the characters were likeable. It was really hard to empathize with Grey. She's clearly incredibly disturbed, apparently due to a childhood so sheltered and strange that it was a form of abuse. She's obsessed with Nanking and you don't really find out why until the very end, so it was hard for me to understand why she'd let it rule her life. Shi Chongming came off as a very hard, unkind man. He refused to escape Nanking with his pregnant wife - first because he had faith in the government and then because of his pride. Of course, he couldn't know the extent of the horror that was coming, but there are at least 6 episodes where things keep getting worse and he still won't leave until it's beyond too late. He's also cruel to Grey, sending her into the den of the yakuza to get the "formula," armed only with cryptic clues, when he already knew what it was.

The ending actually made the book a bit better for me - it's not a surprise ending, but everything meshes together and becomes clear. I didn't hate it quite as much once everything was resolved.

I'm wondering about Hayder's other works - I thought her writing was really good, but if all of her books have that level of disgustingness in them, I won't be checking them out.

Favourite character: There was one, at least - Mama Strawberry, the owner of the Some Like It Hot club where Grey works as a hostess. She's obsessed with Marilyn Monroe (the club has a huge Marilyn perched on a rocking swing on the roof) and only wears clothes based on ones she wore in movies or public appearances. She's constantly saying how much better the clothes suit her than Marilyn. But despite that oddness, she seems to be an excellent businesswoman and she comes to truly care about Grey. I have a soft spot for Marilyn, myself, so I also enjoyed seeing what Strawberry would be wearing next.

For a much better-written review of The Devil of Nanking, check out my friend and fellow book-clubber Vidalia's post about it here.


Julie said...

Would it be better as a movie? It sounds like it would be a good movie visually (if "they" did it right). Seems like it might be a good suspense/thriller or a horror film.

You do read some interesting books. :)

tinylittlelibrarian said...

We actually talked about that at book club - we thought it *would* make a really good movie, that there was definite screenplayness there - but that there were so many horrific images, you wouldn't want to actually see the events.

Yup, book club is all about expanding one's reading horizons... just not always in a direction you want to go. :)

paul.angelmaker said...

I finished reading this book last night and I thought it was very good. I understand where the reviewer is coming from about there not being any likable characters but I have to disagree with him personally as I found Grey was likeable. The things she done before which were quite distrubing were done out of ignorance. The difference between evil and ignorance is a large part of what the book is about. The same goes for Chongming's big mistake in not leaving Nanking with his wife.

It is quite a disturbing book I guess but the Massacre/Rape of Nanking is the basis for most of the plot and nothing can be more disturbing than that