Review: The Book of Shanghai, edited by Dai Congrong and Dr Jin Li (2020)

This anthology of ten short stories set in Shanghai is published by Comma Press as part of their Reading the City series. Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The Book of Shanghai opens with an insightful and informative introduction by Dr Jin Li, which provides a useful summary of Shanghai’s history and its literary heritage. It is clear that the stories chosen for this anthology have been carefully selected to showcase different aspects of the city and its writing scene, rather than simply because they are set in Shanghai. It feels purposeful and intelligent, and gives the reader confidence that they are in safe hands with these editors.

The ten stories in the collection range from quiet, domestic dramas to surreal, horror-tinged tales, and yet despite the range of styles, they work as a cohesive whole to build up a picture of a city lined with camphor and wutong trees, where apartment buildings force their inhabitants into close proximity with the neighbours. The habits of those neighbours are scrutinised with the full weight of societal expectation. Norms of tradition and routine are sometimes upheld and sometimes delightfully subverted; eccentricity does not go unnoticed in Shanghai, and when social rules are flouted, the community tuts in disapproval. There is a keen sense of observation in these stories, both in terms the beautifully detailed, well-translated prose, which creates a vivid imaginative cityscape for the reader, and in terms of the idea of being watched, which recurs in many of the stories.

All of the ten stories are worth reading, but my personal favourites were Wang Anyi’s ‘Ah Fang’s Lamp’, the perfect introductory story to life in the narrow alleyways between Shanghai apartment blocks; Teng Xiaolan’s ‘Woman Dancing Under the Stars’, a quietly tender account of the friendship between the newly married narrator and the elderly Ms Zhuge; Shen Dacheng’s quirky, intriguing, and ultimately shocking ‘The Novelist in the Attic’; and finally Cai Jun’s ‘Suzhou River’, a mesmerising, lyrical story that is like being inside someone else’s beautiful dream.

The book functions like a clever concept album, so that each distinct story somehow slots together with the others in surprising ways, to create an impression of a city that is more of a feeling than a concrete picture. It was a pleasure to be introduced to so many innovative and talented writers in one volume, and although I cannot speak to the accuracy of the translations, they seemed to me to be very skillfully done. I really enjoyed my time in ‘Shanghai’, and am looking forward to visiting other cities with Comma Press in the near future.

The Book Of Shanghai is out now, published by Comma Press.


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