Rising Sun, Falling Shadow
By Daniel Kalla, HarperCollins Canada, 344 pages, softcover
Daniel Kalla, the consistently successful commercial novelist who used to be head of emergency medicine at St. Paul’s and Mount Saint Joseph hospitals, is that all-too-rare and always valuable individual: an expert science-explainer. His early books, such as Pandemic, Blood Lies, and Cold Plague, were thrillers that used strong story lines to inform people about various highly complicated medical issues without talking down to them or going over their heads. More recently he’s turned to historical fiction while continuing to put his medical knowledge to use in what he writes. Rising Sun, Falling Shadow is the second volume of the projected trilogy that began with The Far Side of the Sky two years ago.
In that first installment, which began in the late 1930s, Dr. Franz Adler and his Viennese family fled the Nazis and wound up in Shanghai, where the doctor started a hospital for the other Jewish refugees and in the process met a nurse named Soon Yi, whom everyone called Sunny. The brand-new second volume conjures up many additional characters and digs down deeper into the ones already established—as when, for instance, Sunny turns out to be a smuggler working for the Shanghai resistance movement.
Resisting whom? Well, this is what makes Rising Sun interesting. The old gang is here but the times have moved on. Shanghai, which was often called both “the Paris of the East” and “a paradise for adventurers”, is in more danger than usual because it’s now 1941. The Japanese, after years of fighting the Nationalist government of China, have captured the city. For non-Chinese at least, Shanghai had been the freest spot on earth, with 50,000 British, French, American, and White Russian expats forming a city-within-the-city where no one needed a passport and the finest hotels served heroin on room service.
Now, post–Pearl Harbor, life is bleak, especially for the 20,000 or so Jews (Sephardi from the Middle East, Ashkenazi from Russia—and, since the war began, German and Yiddish speakers from Europe), all of whom the Japanese army corrals into a ghetto. This is a fascinating episode in Jewish and Chinese history (one about which the most informative short book is Irene Eber’s Voices From Shanghai, published by University of Chicago Press).
Kalla grabs the reader with short, action-filled chapters, one after another, building-block style. He has a gift for such construction, but the book is driven mostly by dialogue. This is unfortunate, as nearly all of Kalla’s characters sound alike—and none of them, going on the basis of language alone, seems convincing as a resident of the year 1941. Still, the novel is, as old expat Shanghailanders would have said, a corking good yarn.