My thanks to Head of Zeus and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

Wuhan is a novel of epic proportions set in the first year (1937‒1938) of the second Sino-Japanese war or Japanese invasion of China, when Wuhan (yes, the very same) served as the capital of the government headed by Chiang Kai-shek, a period fraught with horrifying violence, suffering and loss of life. This was not a novel that captured me from the start, but one that did gradually pull me in, and which I ended up enjoying very much (and indeed learning much from as well).

In the book we follow numerous storylines, of both historical and fictional characters. In the first part of the book, we basically follow two journeys. The first is of the fictional farmer Wei and his family (his old father, rather unpleasant wife, and six children) who were in some ways reminiscent of Wang Lung and his family from Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth. We have the good-hearted and just Wei who loves his children and against social mores looks out for his oldest daughter, Spider Girl who suffers from rickets as a result of being denied food by her mother (naturally, her son was to be given preference; despite trying not to look at her from a current-day perspective, I found her to be a rather selfish character) and constantly faces insults and ill-will from her. Wei is disturbed by the clouds of black smoke he sees at a distance, but it is Spider Girl who brings news of the impending Japanese arrival to their village and persuades her father to move with the entire family towards Wuhan. (Spider Girl is shrewd and resourceful and someone one roots for throughout.) The family sets off on a harrowing journey where many unspeakable sacrifices have to be made, and indignities to be borne.

The second story is that of author Lao She, who is torn between his Western beliefs and the Confucian ideals he still finds himself practicing when he is called to Wuhan to serve his country while in his hometown, his old mother lies ill and can’t be moved. His equally patriotic wife convinces him to make the sacrifice, go to Wuhan while she and the children will remain and cope as best as they can. Lao She may not face the same difficulties that Wei and his family do on their journey, but he too must face indignities, and witnesses the atrocities that not only the invaders but their own soldiers are unleashing on innocent civilians, while the higher ups (many of them) focus on saving their own lives and wealth.

In Wuhan, Lao She begins his rather difficult task of training writers to produce propaganda that would actually be understood by people, since most of them can’t seem to understand that their high-flown Marxist writings mean little to the common person. He is also constantly worried about how his family are doing since he hears nothing from them. Some way down the line he is also entrusted with a rather distasteful mission by the government, but this doesn’t keep him entirely safe from the secret police who target him as well. Alongside, at the bidding of Madame Chiang, wife of Chiang Kai-Shek, he is also asked to write a play celebrating the city and the people.

Wei on the other hand enlists in the army and through him we witness the brutalities and realities of war in which it is the common person who suffers while those that initiate the conflict are at a safe distance. Wei does make a few friends, and acquire skills.

Spider Girl meanwhile finds herself housekeeper to journalist and writer Agnes Smedley (a historical character), who contributes toward the treatment of wounded soldiers. Through Agnes we also get a look into the views and perspectives of expat journalists in the Last Ditch Press Club including the idealistic pacifist George Hogg who tries to help a group of orphans, and Peter Fleming (brother of Ian, and partly an inspiration behind James Bond), who also works for MI 6. There are also a few others whose stories we follow, and a brief appearance by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.  

Through Agnes and Spider girl we also meet Hu Lan-Shih (based on a real-life character but in a slightly fictional avatar), a former factory worker and unionist who is volunteering towards first-aid to wounded soldiers, an effort in which there is participation from many surprising quarters. Her story comes to Madame Chiang’s ears and she is offered a place on a government committee, but Hu is soon disillusioned and moves on to other tasks including helping young doctor Donald Hankey whom Spider Girl also helps.

The story is told in two voices. One the narrator, the author himself who tells us the stories of most of these characters even speaking to us (the readers) on some occasions. The other is the voice of Lao She, the only character who speaks to us in first person. At first, I found myself wondering why he (being a real-life character) was given a voice, and I found some of his language to be coarse as well. But that soon changed and by the end I found myself really enjoying his part of the narrative—it left me feeling as though Lao She was really talking to us, and is almost a friend. (It also left me wanting to explore his writings, which I have popped on to my list).

The book in effect really gives us a picture of China in those days—the mid-1930s, a time when Chiang Kai-Shek was in power. Illiteracy was the norm, and people had no conception of China, rather only of their own villages and towns. Language too, was a problem, for there were so many dialects spoken, that people found themselves unable to understand each other. When the Japanese attacked, people did however begin to get together and even the common man wished to fight for their homeland. (The efforts at unification had me thinking back to school history lessons of the unification of Germany, and Italy and what followed). But in the corridors of power, things were different as Chiang Kai-Shek, to preserve his own power, did not keep around him any truly skilled generals, which meant defence efforts were inadequate, and only a few could do something effective. On the other hand, the Soong sisters, who included Madame Chiang, and her sisters, Soong Ai-ling, married to the richest man in China, H.H. Kung, also the finance minister, and Soong Ching-ling, wife of Sun Yat-sen, who each wielded power and influence in their own right, worked for the betterment of the people and the country. The book as such takes us across various sections of society–from the corridors of powers to the more sordid and seedy quarters.

Besides the political situation in China, the book also gives us an idea of broader world politics, the appeasement policies of Britain and France who seemed more concerned with destroying communism rather than helping those who were suffering (on the continent and elsewhere). Though one does understand to a point their reluctance to being involved in another war.

Faith is another thread that one sees in the book, with many characters drawing strength from their faith.

War itself, as does any war, shows one the ugliest side of humanity, and this was the case here too; brutalities, looting, assaults, death—also greed—all of it is seen, and one does begin to understand the point of view of the pacifists during that time (at any time, too, really, but more so then, just some decades after the Great War though their view of how far Hitler would go was sadly wrong). The Japanese invaders too used similar ideologies to Hitler (social darwinism) to justify their attacks, but they too seen as a tool in the battle against communism.

And because this book is focused on a period of war, there is violence, a lot of it—blood, gore—in all its rawness. But during the earlier parts of the book, I do agree with some other reviewers that the descriptions of violence and of assaults on women were a touch too graphic. Also, some of the coarse language feels entirely unnecessary. I could well see how these would be off-putting; it was to me as well, and while it didn’t lead me to want to abandon the book, I did wonder how I would get through it. But once I started to get immersed in the story, characters, and events, I did not only read it but enjoyed it as well.

So Wuhan turned out to be a book which I enjoyed (though enjoy is probably not quite the word that I should use) very much; not only did I learn a lot about a period in China I knew little of, it also gave me a lot to think about and introduced me to many real-life characters who I’ve become interested in looking up more on. (I also loved that the author managed to put in some surprises in the plot I didn’t see coming at all). Long though this is, I would definitely recommend it, though it may take a while to get into.

4.25 stars

Also, from Lao She’s writings mentioned, I even found an entry for Keli Cat’s Book Corner, a science fiction satire set on Mars inhabited by cat people!

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Wuhan by John Fletcher

  1. Enjoyed the review! This sounds like the type of book from which I’d learn a great deal in a relatively painless fashion, particularly as I know little about this period of China’s history. If you have an interest in non-fiction, there’s a pretty well regarded group biography of the remarkable Soong sisters, who played pivotal roles during the period of this novel. One sister (the youngest) became Madame Chiange Kai-Shek; the middle sister married Sun Yat-sen & latter supported Mao and the oldest married the richest man in China and became a powerful behind the scenes player. It’s called Big Sister, Little Sister and Red Sister; if you’re interested you can find a review at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/12/big-sister-little-sister-red-sister-jung-chang-review (the New York Times gave it a better review than the Guardian, but the former has a pay wall!) I’ve been intending to read it for some time but these days I prefer novels over non-fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for the recommendation. Madame Chiang appears through this book and the sisters are mentioned. And I do want to read more about them. I also came across a book somewhere called the Soong Sisters which I think is also nonfiction.

      Auden and Isherwood also have a joint volume–prose and verse–based on the time they spent there as well.

      Liked by 1 person

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