This epic novel is set against the backdrop of the Sino-Japanese war, from the time Japan annexed Manchuria in the early 1930s until the end of the Second World War.
During these years a militaristic Japan pursued an aggressive dream to colonize not only China but also the whole of South-East Asia and beyond. The brutal sacking of Chiang Kai-shek’s new capital, Nanking, which refused to surrender to the Imperial Army, was a graphic example of Japanese retribution in a war of punishment. During six horrendous weeks the city was shut off from the world, and several hundred thousand Chinese died in an orgy of killing and rape at the hands of a marauding Japanese army.
The story of these tumultuous years is told through the lives of a disparate group of fictional characters, people in flight from both political tyranny and themselves. A young Russian woman émigré is caught between her complex love affair with a British journalist and an overwhelming passion for a liberal minded Japanese diplomat who dares to stand by his conscience against all odds. An Indian nationalist working for Japanese intelligence, a Chinese professor with communist sympathies, an American missionary doctor and a Japanese soldier are all brought together by the monstrous dislocation of war and the need to stand witness to humanity’s basest acts.
While A Choice of Evils vividly portrays the terrorizing of Nanking and the political events that led up to it, there are also moments of great personal tenderness. Enmeshed in a savage world beyound their control, each character turns to the deepest part of themselves to find a way to survive.
The story ends with the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, reuniting some characters, laying some ghosts to rest and opening the curtain on a new, post-war Japan. Evil, it turns out, is not one-side.
‘..this extraordinary novel’s centrepiece is the rape of Nanking in 1937… what makes this book so completely absorbing is Meira Chand’s own scrupulous and unflinching analysis of the Japanese character…a marvellously researched and impressively well written novel.’
Frances Donelly. The Times 17th February 1996.
Thorough in its research, ambitious in scope, Chand’s latest novel shows…her ability to evoke time and place with the most economical of means…Compelling, harrowing.’
Trevor Johnston, Time Out.
‘Ambitious and impressive.’
‘…her mastery of narrative is evident throughout.’
The Daily Telegraph. 8th March 1997
From Chapter One.
Nanking, China 1937
The Japanese are only waiting for an opportunity to push further south, Bradley had written to Martha. And who will stop them when they are ready? We don’t know what’s ahead except trouble…
Martha had known Bradly Reed since childhood. Their families met aboard a ship while returning to China after home leave in America. After disembarking at Shanghai, they shared a further ride on a crowded barge up the Grand Canal to their respective missions. It was the middle of winter and Martha wore a padded Chinese coat for warmth.
The families huddled together in the small, cold cabin; on deck Chinese passengers chattered.
Through the window she and Bradley peered out between a row of feet at market towns, earthen farmhouses, temples and everywhere graves, like large molehills littering the ground.
Only the icy draught through a broken pane occasionally drove Martha back from the window.
After the break in America she did not want to miss an inch of China. She knew she was home when the stone walls of the city loomed before her. Over its gates, like rotting gargoyles, were the decapitated heads of criminals. She did not give them a second glance.
The Chinese town she had alived in went by many names, but the sights were always the same. She was excited to be back. She had not felt at home in America; some vital ingredient was missing.
The ease was almost uncomfortable. Other children found her conversation outlandish and adults were shocked by her tales of discarded babies in dry riverbeds.
From Chapter Ten
General Matsui was confined to bed in Soochow with tubercular fever when news of his promotion came through. He dismissed congratulations with a disapproving silence. All it meant was that he was no longer Commander in Chief of the army about Nanking. There had been criticism in Tokyo of things in Shanghai. The Emperor had wanted only a brief undertaking; instead the battle had stretched into months. Now the Emperor had relieved him of personal supervision of the field. General Matsui was elevated to overall command of the Central Chinese Theatre….Promotion rendered Matsui obsolete in all but responsibility. He had no control of hour-by-hour movements and plans. His command had been distanced from him.
He put a hand on the table and with an effort pulled himself off the hard bed. He called an aide and gave orders to summon all staff officers. The coughing began again. It had not been easy to find a billet in good condition. Soochow was in smithereens from ferocious bombing. Little was left of the famous pagodas, gardens and ornate bridges. In the past he had visited the city and been captured by its legendary beauty. It saddened him to see its destruction. Beyond the window of his room General Matsui looked out on a mess of smashed trees and stones…Soldiers were soldiers and war was war. Incidents invariably happened but unnecessary excess was not to Matsui’s liking. Ill health sapped his energy. The dark hours on his sickbed were filled with terrifying premonitions.