World War II haunts the lives and loves of three people, on three continents, in this novel by an author who “writes with wisdom and courage” (Ursula Hegi, author of Stones from the River).
Oscar is a mysterious Englishman who presides over Ellis Park, a sprawling mansion on Long Island’s North Shore. It is 1951; as the jazz bands play and the ever-present houseguests waft into the ballroom, the war seems much further away than a mere six years. But Oscar is tormented by his own questionable wartime dealings—and embroiled in a drama involving late-night meetings with an official, with whom he speaks German. He is also haunted by memories of Christine, his great love, who sailed to Shanghai after the war. He has no idea of the murky moral depths into which she has fallen.
Marilyn, meanwhile, has moved in to Ellis Park for the summer, and is working on a book of her wartime photography. She reminds Oscar of Christine—and he finds refuge late at night sitting beside her in the pristine photographic studio he built in a basement area, deep beneath the sumptuous, brightly lit rooms above. But he suspects that Marilyn has a secret, and this suspenseful literary page-turner unfolds through the point of view of all three characters, spanning three continents, telling a story of beliefs and self-deceptions, and the ways our lives are shaped by both history and art.
“In the years following WWII, the horrors of that war reverberate in the lives of the intertwined characters in [this] story of guilt, mistaken identity, and love . . . Nayman’s saga delves deeply into how even those not directly affected are forever changed by war.” —Booklist
“A marvelous book that sweeps across decades and around the world to reveal dark secrets locked tight within the human heart.” —Jed Horne, author of Breach of Faith
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There were times, back home, when the beauty of things willfully withdrew. The grounds of the school where I taught would become suddenly aloof, the old stone paths confusing, the great leafy trees as distant as the hundred or more years they held aloft. Sitting on a bench in the sun, a chill would settle on my skin beneath the layers of my clothes. England, I remember thinking, looking out from my rooms at the slow gray drizzle that would hang for days in the air like a pinched complaint. It is England against which nature is closing herself off.
It was different here, the rain never drizzled; it released in ardent torrents from a thick sea-green sky. And the heat, always the heat.
Yes, it is true that the civil unrest was beginning to bleed into Shanghai — betrayals and shifting allegiances, warlords posturing threat, late-night clashes on the street that readily erupted into violence. Still, it seemed unthinkable that Mao's thugs would prevail. I kept to the Foreign Quarter, which remained fairly free of disturbance. Compared with the nightly bombings I'd endured in London, along with the sense of constant danger from a fierce and unitary enemy, the situation in Shanghai seemed of a different order: scattered and avoidable. Besides, I had other things on my mind.
How could I describe the mornings? Before the first pipe, when along with my tea I savored the soft gnawing that felt akin to hunger but was really a condition of the spirit.
I sat in my room awaiting Barnaby — opened the window, breathed in the odor of stagnant pools and decaying timber. I crossed my arms on the sill and looked out onto the street. Here, in place of ancient trees, were saplings as spindly and spotted with sores as the children who hopped about in the alleys, and I thought I saw in them the same urchin cheer.
It had been dry all morning, long enough for a handful of misshapen birds to gather on the broken ledge of the building next door. Without warning, water splashed in bucketfuls from the sky; in a commotion of screeching and awkward flapping, the birds rose as one and disappeared over the roof. Glancing back down at the street, I sighted Barnaby rounding the corner, his collar raised — pointlessly, force of habit, I guessed — against the soaking rain. Before crossing the street, he paused; there was no traffic, save for a passengerless rickshaw being pulled slowly along, and two men on bicycles, crisscrossing the roadway to avoid potholes that had already turned to glossy black pools. Even through the downpour I could see that Barnaby, hands shoved into his pockets, the water splashing up around him, was frowning. This surprised me; I did not think of Barnaby as a man who was easily perturbed.
I knew what would ensue when Barnaby finally climbed the three flights to my room, knew the sequence as well as if I had just witnessed it played by actors on a stage. He would peel off his wet clothes, put on the silk bathrobe I kept for him behind the door of the water closet, and emerge looking fresh, his wet hair combed away from his face. He would look at me with amused eyes and spin me around the room to the beating sound of the rain, then sashay more slowly until we were no longer dancing but just swaying to and fro. (He was still there outside, looking down, now, at the ground.) By then, the discomfort would be spreading through my body, gripping my stomach, clutching my head. At the thought, my lips soured. Finally, he would reach for the pouch he had managed to keep dry and with steady hands, prepare the opium pipe that would pass between us. I would be aware of how briefly Barnaby would inhale, and the indulgence, by comparison, with which he would press me to linger when the pipe was in my hands.
Then I might glance out the window, only the sky would look suddenly vast, and Barnaby might lean down and kiss me, the acrid- smoke taste on his lips subtle and full as opening roses. His hands on my hips would tighten, and I would shut my eyes. My own lips would taste of ash, dusty and sweet, my own breath the breath of the pipe. The street outside would narrow to a straggly thin line, the casual charcoal stroke of an artist. In between kisses, we would now pass a cigarette, still swaying together, Barnaby's hands moving slowly on my hips. The room would turn blue and then black with night though the hour would elongate, seem not to pass.
Still Barnaby stood there, out in the rain, the frown no longer visible. Finally, he crossed the street and disappeared into the doorway below, the entrance to the narrow green building where for more than a year I have had my lodgings.
When Barnaby opened the door, he moved through the room, stripped off his wet clothes, and changed into the blue robe. As we glided together, he bunched the material of my skirt in his hands, raising the hem halfway up my thighs. I glimpsed myself each time we passed the dressing glass that stood in the corner — the red flash of my skirt, my thigh a white blur; how curiously distant I felt from my reflection. From time to time, Barnaby spoke into my ear; the rich sound of his voice gave me pleasure, though I paid no attention to what he was saying.
The gnawing heightened unpleasantly; I held Barnaby with an urgency that made him also tighten his grasp on me. He rode my dress higher in his hands and reached under the lace of my camisole, pressing both hands so tightly around my waist that his fingers almost touched. He seemed to be waiting until the last possible moment before producing the pouch.
"Darling, why don't we set up the pipe —" I said.
Barnaby's hands glided upward under the front of my camisole. We slid to the floor. Barnaby's robe fell open. With one hand, he unbuttoned my blouse, pausing over each one, the other hand still on my breast.
I attempted a small laugh. "The pipe," I repeated softly.
Barnaby pulled away, looked at me appraisingly, then smiled. "Of course, my sweet, I'd forgotten your greed."
He crossed to where his wet clothes were hanging on the coat rack and from an inner pocket, removed a small oilskin bag. Back beside me, he unfastened the pouch with what seemed like excruciating slowness — untying the leather thong, curling its ends into a loose knot.
"Where is the pipe?" Barnaby asked. I darted to the desk by the window and retrieved my small, cloisonné pipe. Outside, the sky held its cloud banks of sludge.
When I handed the pipe to Barnaby he placed his hand on the back of my neck and drew my face down to his. He pressed his lips over mine, and I had a peculiar sensation of collision, as if I were slamming up against steel. My efforts to mask my panic must have been successful for when we drew apart Barnaby still had a slow, dreamy face.
"I don't know which appetite to satisfy first," he said.
"The devil's choice," I said, forcing a smile. Waiting does this, I thought, looking at Barnaby through the pulsing red blurs at the corners of my eyes.
"It's so wonderful, before we smoke," he murmured.
Everything ached; where he nuzzled my breast it burned.
Time at a standstill. Gazing at Barnaby: frozen, distracted. For a moment I forgot him, I was thinking of somebody else. I was thinking of Robert. I'd heard he'd changed his name — how odd, that he would take on the name of his sad refugee friend from the Internment Center, Oskar, anglicizing it to Oscar. Of course, I can only think of him as Robert. Robert holding me, touching me, taking my spirit between his soothing palms. I closed my eyes. I might almost float there, I thought; I might almost float home.
"Here, Christine —" I opened my eyes. Not Robert, not home, but Barnaby, naked beneath his open robe, carefully handing me the pipe.
From the moment I set eyes on Archibald in the ship's shabby dining room — which the crew, to their credit, had tried to spruce up with paper streamers and a few crystal pieces that had survived the war — I knew that Archibald and I would be friends. I drew a chair up to the crowded table, where Archibald was holding court among a group of fellow passengers, and soon found myself in the kind of lighthearted spirits I had not known since my university days.
Archibald was wily and clever, though never really serious, even when his talk turned lofty. This I knew from the inflamed joviality in his small, strangely pink eyes, and from the quizzical expression that never entirely abandoned his features. He was a strange fellow, at odds with himself, in a way that was stamped into his physical being. In contrast to the rest of his form — the thickened features of his face, whiskers like two gray scrubbing brushes at the sides of his jowls, the solid limbs arrayed awkwardly around his massive protruding center — Archibald's hands were unaccountably beautiful. He must have known this for he kept them creamed and manicured and, on occasion, when mulling something over, would spread his fingers before him and regard them admiringly.
The mood on board was festive. Less than one short year since V-J Day, I found myself among people who, like myself, were eager to leave the drabness of wartime England behind. Archibald was the exception. He had only good things to say about his Beloved Motherland, as he called it. For reasons still unclear to me, Archibald had spent the war years in China. He had waited some months before booking his passage home. But, for all the expense and effort and anticipation of the journey, he had stayed in England a scant few weeks. "No point hanging about," he said to me with a wink. "Just wanted to lay eyes on the Dear Lady, make sure she was still intact."
The social life established on board continued uninterrupted once we were ashore. My first months in Shanghai were all parties and gay conversation. Archibald knew everybody — everybody who counted as far as expatriate society went. I soon discovered that my new friend had a deeper nature. We were sitting in the bar of the hotel where Archibald made his home, when he turned the conversation to his own early life.
"I've always known I had a calling," he'd said. "Since I was a little boy. I wouldn't have known what to name it but it was there, an irascible creature hanging around my neck wherever I went, wriggling and whining and giving me nasty little nips. Heavens, the days I spent wandering around Knightsbridge in a state. One thing frightened me: that the path, my North Star, when it finally revealed itself, would be unworthy — and please excuse the self-indulgence — of my largesse of spirit, of all the effort and duress."
A tear bulged from the corner of Archibald's eye. His self-pity seemed absurd, yet I could feel the prickle of tears myself — was aware of how I, too, as a child, had a similar desperate intimation of my own destiny.
"My severe trepidations were, alas, in the end, borne out," he continued. "But by then, it was too late to alter my course." Archibald fixed me with a disturbing stare, his pinkish eyes suddenly hard. "I say, how about an excursion? You must have heard about Han Shu's café, on the Great Western Road. I've been meaning to take you there for some time. I have a feeling you and Han Shu will get along."
I immediately liked the smokey, dim bar, with its cushioned chairs, polished wood beams, and well-attired clientele. Unlike other expatriate nightspots, Han Shu's café — more of a nightclub, really — had held its own throughout the war. Rumor had it that after the Japanese occupiers had brutalized Han Shu's friend, a Dutchman and fellow club owner, for refusing to comply with their extortionist demands, Han Shu had done what was necessary to secure his own safety and prosperity.
When Han Shu appeared, well into the evening, he turned out to be surprisingly tall, and of an unusual build: muscular and pudgy, both. His hair was a slick black cap, oiled and parted, razor sharp down the middle, and he emanated a potent scent — part floral, part musk. A single detail marred his otherwise meticulous grooming: when Han Shu smiled, which he did unself-consciously and often, his glossy lips revealed a stunted forest of richly stained teeth.
"A dear shipboard friend," Archibald said, by way of introduction, nodding to me. Han Shu eyed me approvingly. "Meet Han Shu, a long-standing connoisseur of things British. And an important person in these parts."
"A privilege, to meet such a beautiful woman. I am indeed most honored."
Han Shu took my hand in dough-soft fingers and gave a low bow. I had not before encountered such a large Chinese man. As he lingered, half bent over, I studied the girth of his back and noticed him taking me in. There it was again, that almost palpable sense of thrill rising from a man, directed at me, which had long ago ceased to interest me. I wondered absently why physical beauty should occasion such worship.
Archibald looked first at me and then at Han Shu, and I fancied I saw in his face a paternalistic glow. His next words seemed addressed to himself.
"Yes. I'd like you to meet your spiritual guide."
The rains scrubbed the city clean. Even the mosquitoes festering in the pools that gathered along the streets seemed like emissaries of goodwill.
I had not expected to find Barnaby in Han Shu's smoking room — in the same building as the café but secreted from the bar at the end of a long corridor. So it was a surprise to see his square- jawed face appear above the rice-paper screen of the booth where I was sitting among a small group of customers. I stiffened and drew slightly away from my new acquaintance, a middle-aged specimen with mustard-colored hair and startled eyes.
"Why Barnaby, what a pleasant surprise! Meet Stephen — Stephen Stonehill," I said awkwardly. Stonehill, smiling excitedly, seemed at a loss for words. "You will join us for a drink," I added, aware of the anxiety in my voice. "We're all going out for a drive later, in Stonehill's car."
I smoothed the ripple of hair above my ear. Barnaby's eyes followed the movement; their warmth felt like a caress.
"I have a quick errand to run," I said quickly. "Why don't you two get acquainted."
I rose, lifting the hem of my dress, which I noticed was slightly frayed.
The corridor was almost completely dark; narrow glass shingles near the ceiling let in a greasy red glow. At the end of the hallway, by the front door, I recognized my contact, a thin Chinese man whose face was a plane of hard angles. Our business took barely a minute. Nodding curtly, the man left through the front door. He'd granted my request for an extension on the loan, but there was still the matter of finding fresh funds. I stood for a moment, alone, twisting my handkerchief in my hands, wondering how my savings, which had seemed so robust — surely enough to sustain me here for two years, possibly three — could have dwindled so rapidly. Archibald, I thought. He would help me figure out how to dig my way out of the mess I was in. I would visit him later at his hotel. Starting back down the corridor, I almost collided with Barnaby and hastily resumed my cheerful air.
"You will come with us, won't you?" I said. "Stonehill's a bit simple, but he's awfully nice."
"You're in trouble, aren't you," Barnaby said.
"Don't be a silly boy," I replied brightly, linking my arm in his. "We're going to have a wonderful evening. We'll go to the American Bar and dance. I'll take turns, though I can assure you that every moment I'm dancing with Red, I'll be thinking of you."
After a languid day spent with Barnaby, I readied myself for my nightly sortie to Han Shu's café.
"Let's give it a miss tonight," Barnaby said. "I'm rather bored with the place."
"You're not going to give me reason to call you a stick-inthe- mud. You, of all people."
Barnaby eyed me with uncharacteristic seriousness. "What do you see in a buffoon like Stonehill, anyway?"
I smiled. "Barnaby Harrington. I do believe you're just the teensiest bit jealous."
He smiled back. "Haven't you heard? Life is painful, hard, and short."
"Darling, that's not how the saying goes," I said.
"Well, I've got the short part right, and that's my point. Life — time — it's precious. Spend it with me. Don't throw yourself away."
He regretted his words immediately, I could see that; something in the air between us altered, like a sudden plunge in barometric pressure.
"There's something else," he said, unable to mask the darkness in his face.
"You should stay away from Han Shu's. It's not good for you."
I lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, turned to face him.
"Barnaby, dear. You stick to your pleasures, I'll stick to mine."
Archibald was at his usual table in the hotel bar, his giant belly like a lost, friendly sea creature perched in his lap. Barnaby slung his panama onto the hat rack and sat opposite his friend in a cushioned chair.
"Out late again last night, I presume?" Archibald's small eyes glistened beneath bushy brows. "Official business? Or intrigues of another kind? Nothing that a thick bristle from the dog that bit you won't fix."
Barnaby tapped down a cigarette on the side table. "Decidedly unofficial. And a decidedly fiendish dog."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Mind of Winter"
Copyright © 2012 Shira Nayman.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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