This was a book I really wanted to give five stars, for the fact of choosing to write about such grueling subject matter, but unfortunately, I just couldn’t do it.
Ha Jin attempts, in novelized form, to depict the Japanese storming of the Chinese city of Nanjing in December of 1937, a period of weeks which became known as the “Rape of Nanjing” or the “Nanjing Massacre”, due to the awful savagery with which the locals, both civilians and surrendered military alike, were treated by the victorious Japanese army, who raped, pillaged, burned homes, and murdered with shocking brutality somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese men, women, and children (we will never know the exact number).
I had two main issues with this novel. First, I felt that in telling the book from the viewpoint of the rescue workers, the westerners and Chinese who worked in the safe zone and helped to set up and maintain the refugee camps, the reader never really connects with the victims themselves. It seemed to me as if the action was happening off on the periphery of the story, and I felt a kind of emotional detachment from it. This was in turn exacerbated by my second issue with the novel: that the prose was very flat and lacking in pathos. It felt as if I were reading a very dry newspaper rendering at times; frankly, I have read more emotionally charged writing in nonfiction history accounts. Ha Jin took what should have been a subject bleeding with despondency and drained it of all its human energy. More focus needed to be on the victims and less on the details of the school; as written, the book lost its impact.
I did appreciate the epilogue at the book’s end, letting the reader know what became of Minnie Vautrin at the end of her life, and what became of the college, but it really was beside the point of the novel.
In fairness, I must say that I listened to the audio of this book, and I did not like the narrator. Her style was very stilted. Initially, I wondered if this might have something to do with my feelings regarding the book. However, after writing the bulk of my review I read some other reviews and discovered that others also feel the same way that I do, so I do not think that it is just the stilted narration which affected my viewpoint. Overall, a take-it or leave-it book for me.