John's Reviews > Nanjing Requiem

Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin
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's review
Jan 21, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, historical-fiction
Read in October, 2011

A Fine Fictional Recounting of the Nanjing Massacre

Ha Jin's "Nanjing Requiem" is a fictional recollection of the infamous Nanjing Massacre, as seen through the eyes of American missionary Minnie Vautrin, the dean of Jingling Women's College, and her fictitious assistant and friend, Ahling Gao, the novel's narrator. Much to his credit, Ha Jin has made a most impressive case explaining why and how Vautrin's valiant acts in saving innocent Chinese civilians during the Japanese seizure of Nanjing, the Chinese capital, and its immediate bloody aftermath in late December, 1937 should be viewed as far more noteworthy than the German John Rabe's celebrated humanitarian activities recounted in Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking" and in the edited "Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe". His excellent descriptive prose vividly recalls the horrific sights and sounds experienced by the real Minnie Vautrin and her American and Chinese colleagues at Jingling Women's College. However, despite the excellence of his writing, Ha Jin never offers the reader a truly gripping, mesmerizing account of Vautrin, who was justly celebrated by Nanjing civilians as the living "Goddess of Mercy". His Minnie Vautrin is a far less compelling protagonist than the fictional characters he has surrounded herself with, starting with her friend, Ahling Gao, a Protestant Christian Chinese national. Paradoxically the reader is left with a much better understanding of Gao's own aspirations and fears while the novel's "true" protagonist, Vautrin, comes across as aloof, quite detached, as if she was a mere cipher reacting helplessly to Nanjing's relentless descent into Hell courtesy of the bestial, quite savage, Imperial Japanese army of occupation. While I have serious reservations regarding Ha Jin's portrayal of Minnie Vautrin, his literary excellence in recounting the infamous "Rape of Nanjing" remains the main reason why his latest novel is one that still warrants a wide readership.

(Reposted from my 2011 Amazon review)

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