Monday, March 4, 2013

WHITE SHANGHAI by Elvira Baryakina

I was excited to receive this novel since it is set in Shanghai in the 1920s, a chaotic period in the history of that city and China as a whole.  In setting and depiction of the political corruption,  public unrest, and rampant racism, the book didn't disappoint.  It's a confusing time and I still don't have it clear in my mind but I know a lot more than I did before I read this book.  I admire the author's ability to sort it all out.

Whites mostly lived in the white settlement which was forbidden to Chinese unless they were employed by a white family.  In this story, the main characters are White Russians who fled the Bolshevik revolution via Vladivostok on the remaining ships of the tsar's navy.  From there they sailed south, stopping at ports in  hopes of finding help and shelter but no one wanted them.  As they ran out of supplies and people were dying on the ships, they came to Shanghai and stopped.  There was no place to go.  At that point many of the more adventurous refugees found a way into the city where they fed and clothed themselves through means both legal and illegal.

I had one huge problem with this novel.  I really didn't find any characters that I liked or even cared much what happened to them.  The protagonist, Klim Rogov, a journalist is too passive, his estranged wife, Nina, too aggressive and self-centered, and the others just plain unlikable.  You must keep in mind that these people are in an impossible situation and I understand that.  The Russians are looked down upon and definitely unwanted in Shanghai.  Just making enough money for a little food and maybe a room to sleep in requires a lot of luck and courage.  Nina makes a success of her businesses because she cares only about herself and doesn't mind trampling on others to get what she wants.   

This book was written by a Russian woman who lives in New York, but she wrote it in Russian.  It was then translated by a team of two people and they did a marvelous job of it.  It still has a Russian flavor to it but the English is impeccable.  It was published in London.  As I think about it, that's almost as confusing as the situation in Shanghai.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical novels firmly set in the period and place, and who don't mind a long novel of more than 500 pages.  The novel carries the reader along without boring passages and tells a good story.

Source:  LibraryThing win


  1. Thanks for your interesting comments. I'm looking forward to reading the book too, as I have read several books set in Shanghai in this period, books from American, Chinese, Jewish, Russian, British points of view. So many different peoples lived in that city during that chaotic period. I became interested after reading American journalist Emily Khan's memoir, China to Me.

  2. Thank you for your comment and for mentioning the memoir you read. I'll be on the lookout for it since I'd like to read another point of view. I hope readers won't let the length of this novel or my disappointment in the characters discourage them from reading it.

  3. That's too bad about not having any likable characters. That's always a deal-breaker for me!

  4. I'm not sure I'd want to read that many pages of a book if I'm not invested in the characters, even though I'm fascinated with China during that time period.

  5. I do love the setting and time period of this one, but not sure what I'd think of this one.

    (Hope you've been doing well Barbara).

    1. Diane, Thanks for asking. I'm feeling very well and slowly regaining my strength and energy. I think it will take several months before I'm completely back to normal but I know now I will get there. The best thing is that my brain is functioning again - chemobrain is the pits.

  6. Thank you for a most interesting post.

  7. Jill and Kathy, You might have a different feeling about the characters than I did, either more compassion for their situation or more understanding about why they are who they are. Or, they might leave you cold like they did me. You never know.

  8. It sounds like a fascinating slice of history. I'm intrigued enough to go find out more about this book.

    Rose City Reader

  9. It's definitely hard to like a novel when the characters are unlikeable. But the setting is very intriguing.

  10. Any book set in China makes me think of Pearl Buck's trilogy beginning with The Good Earth. I remember the characters in those books as if I really knew them. I agree with you - I can love a book if I don't love the people in it.

    So glad to see you back to normal.