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Reveiwing historical fiction: Lisa See's "Shanghai Girls"

Cover of Lisa See's novel
Cover of Lisa See's novel

Historical fiction is often a genre fraught with danger….and not because this type of fiction is usually centered on times of war. No, the danger we readers face in historical fiction stems directly from the author’s knowledge, their ability to recreate a time and often a place totally unfamiliar to them, and their ability to recreate accents throughout their dialogue. What, after all, can be more hazardous than trying to translate a horribly written Scottish, English, or Russian accent?? Even a person who has never seen Japan, for example, will know the risks associated with trying to picture a horribly rendered, over idealized traditional Japanese garden in the Sixteenth Century. And even I, a firmly situated Twenty-First Century kind of gal, know how harmful it can be when a writer takes you back to a time that (before you read the stinking novel) used to be interesting…and is now ruined forever by bad writing.

These dangers are so serious that all of us historical fiction lovers must band together and share our experiences. We must confess when we have read a bad novel about a Scottish clansmen (romance novels don’t count, ladies and gentlemen) and we must share when we have found the perfect historical fiction that sweeps us from our technology strewn lives into the past.

Now, a lot of people think that Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is one of those novels that really brought us into the lives of Japanese people during the Twenties and Thirties. While Golden’s novel had a certain amount of appeal, let me introduce a novel that blows the Memoirs right out of the water: Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls.

Shanghai Girls follows the story of two relatively modern sisters living in Shanghai during the interwar period. Initially, May and Pearl float through their middle class lives by flaunting their looks as Beautiful Girls (something akin to modern day models) and pursuing society in the bars and restaurants of Shanghai. After disaster hits both their family and their country, the girls are forced to flee from China with no protection, money, or family to help them. When these women finally settle, their so-called ordinary lives become fraught with the tensions of illegal immigration, the communist scare, and the hazards of entangled family lives.

I must admit that I was a little loath to try this new novel. I thought that any American rendering of China would be just another excuse to place western values on a non-western country. Or I thought that this might be an attempt to either glorify or debase Chinese beliefs and ways of life. Lisa See, however, is very similar to Margaret Mitchell (writer of Gone with the Wind) in that she learned about the era she was writing on from the very people who lived through it. She interviewed family, friends, and scholars to get first hand stories and reports from a time that is slowly vanishing from many peoples’ memories. She even had family who experienced the humiliation of immigration during the Thirties and Forties. The true memories that See uses to construct her novel gives Shanghai Girls a feeling of life, of history, of truth, and of meaning. I was truly invested in Pearl and May’s lives and am not ashamed to say that I had a little tear in my eye when bad things happened to them and their family.

All in all, this was one of those novels that I was sad to see the end of. In fact, this book is so good that I am going to return it to the library, head to chapters, and buy it for myself.