Arts Beat: Nanjing Revisited

A Boston author explores his homeland’s trauma.

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Illustration by Louisa Berman

Ha Jin, the BU professor and National Book Award winner, is back this month with his latest novel about a challenging piece of history, this time Japan’s rape of the city of Nanjing, China, in 1937. It’s been four years since Jin’s last novel, but in Nanjing Requiem (out 10/18, Pantheon, $27), the author’s trademark affinity for characters who persevere — even if they bear unspeakable scars — is as strong as ever.

He focuses on Jinling Women’s College, where an American dean named Minnie Vautrin (a real person) sheltered more than 10,000 women and children. As Vautrin struggles to save lives, she must face marauding soldiers, corrupt war profiteers, Communist propaganda, and an imperious American dowager, Mrs. Dennison.

Jin’s writing draws its emotional power from his spare and precise prose, whether detailing war-crime horrors, a hardscrabble Christmas, or just the everyday pressures of running a school turned refugee camp. Where he falters, though, is in his portrayal of Vautrin herself. A paragon of unflinching virtue, she earns the nickname the “Goddess of Mercy” from her Chinese friends but is less dynamic on the page. Unlike other characters with flaws and conflicts, we learn little about Vautrin’s personal life, which motivates her selfless devotion to good works. Jin is right to draw attention to this long-forgotten heroine, and for that reason — and for putting the spotlight on one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities — this is a noble book. But a little more character development would have made it a classic.

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