In The Devil of Nanking, Mo Hayder spins a tale around an historical event that was suppressed for many years and was only recently brought to the forefront. Although the details and numbers of the Chinese civilians murdered by Japanese soldiers during the Massacre of Nanking are still debated, it is no longer a secret lost in denial. Weaving fiction with fact, Mo Hayder has created a compelling and at times intense novel that is next to impossible to put down.
Shi Chongming kept his family from fleeing Nanking, China, when word first got out of a possibility that the Japanese would march on the city. The year was 1937; he held out hope that his leader would see them through until it was too late. He witnessed the destruction of his city and its people in what would become known as the Massacre of Nanking. Decades later, Shi Chongming is a professor of sociology at Japan’s Todai University in Tokyo, where he teaches and lives a relatively quiet life, the past of Nanking seemingly buried.
One summer day, a young British woman who calls herself Grey appears on Chongming’s doorstep at the university. She wants only one thing from him: to see the film footage he’s protected for so many years of a singular event during the Nanking Massacre of 1937 that has haunted her for “nine years, seven months, and eighteen days.” She has searched long and hard for evidence that the event indeed occurred, despite those around her calling her crazy and dismissing her as having an overactive imagination. Proving, if only to herself, that one sentence she read in an orange book she found in her mother’s house years ago was true has become her life’s mission.
Tokyo is not what Grey expected. The city is much more modern and built-up than she anticipated. Her expectation was to find a city that still showed signs of being war-torn after the Second World War. In a culture that is believed to be of one mind, where conformity is key, she sees an unexpected individualism in the people. Grey takes a room in a mansion, her landlord an American to whom she finds herself drawn despite the warnings of their Russian roommates. She finds a job as a hostess in a sophisticated club where she entertains and caters to well-to-do men. Grey, having grown up completely isolated and never truly believing in herself, suddenly finds a confidence she never knew she had.
It is at the club that Grey meets Junzo Fuyuki, a crippled gangster and one of the most feared men in Tokyo. Chongming takes an interest in Grey once he learns of her connection to Fuyuki, and they agree to a trade, Chongming will show Grey the film she has spent years trying to find, if she does him one small favor.
Chongming and Grey are much alike, their paths similar; they both struggle with guilt from the past and the parts they played in the tragedies that haunt them. Furthermore, the two have built walls around themselves, remaining withdrawn and not letting anyone in easily.
With Grey’s present-day narrative and excerpts from Chongming’s journal from the time of the massacre running parallel to each other, a very disturbing and intriguing story emerges in The Devil of Nanking. The two stories deftly come together into a haunting, powerful tale that the reader won’t soon forget. Mo Hayder’s characters are complex and mulit-layered. As the story unfolds, each layer is peeled away revealing deeper, often unexpected layers. The author can be harsh and raw in her descriptions, which only adds to the intensity of the novel.
The Devil of Nanking is not a novel for the faint of heart. Mo Hayder is not afraid to put to paper the grim realities of the wartime atrocities. She takes readers deep into China during a dark moment in history as well as flirting with the deadliest of the Tokyo gangsters. The Devil of Nanking is definitely worth taking the time to read.