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Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang - Book Review - Kristopher Cook

Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang

Reviewed:
by Kristopher Cook
Lust Caution by Eileen Chang Book Cover
Synopsis:
In 1940s Shanghai, young Jiazhi spends her days playing mahjong and drinking tea. But China is occupied by Japanese forces, and in wartime things are not what they seem.
Genre: Classics

Although she stood apart from many of her contemporaries, who were focussed on writing about National Pride, and Progress, Chang instead chose to look at the effects of war on everyday life.

Whilst this does offer an alternative look at war-torn Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), it doesn’t make it a classic.

The story is semi-biographical and it’s believed that Chang was part of a plan to disrupt the Wang Jingwei regime.

The version I purchased was published by Penguin Classics and contains a few additional stories alongside the title story.

I’m glad I bought this copy, because the story of Lust, Caution (as well as the others) is incredibly short – They reach around forty pages at most.

Lust, Caution has also been made into a blockbuster film of the same name (2007) Dir. Ang Lee.

Eileen Chang

Eileen Chang (張愛玲) was born in 1920, Shanghai.

After attending an all-girls school, she attended the University of Hong Kong but was forced back to Shanghai after the Japanese invasion during World War II. She was briefly married to Hu Lancheng, a Japanese collaborator.

At the end of the war, Chang immigrated to the US. She remarried and worked as a screenwriter on Hong Kong films, up until her husband’s death in 1967. From this point on, she became a hermit, rarely leaving her apartment, where she passed away in 1995.

Caution – Not what I expected

Having finally read Lust, Caution, I feel a little underwhelmed.

Although I can see moments of great drama and tension being built, I never felt there was any pay-off.

The writing is easy to read without being overly poetic, but I never really cared for any of the characters. Even writing this review, I’m struggling to remember any of their names without referring back to the book.

Taking place in 1940’s Shanghai, young (and of course, beautiful) Jiazhi spends her days mixing with high-societal ladies. They spend most of this time discussing jewellery and mah-jong.

Invading Japanese forces have started occupying wartime China, causing great panic amongst its people.

However, Jiazhi is living a lie.

She’s a radical spy whose mission is to seduce a high-ranking member of the occupying government to lead him into the path of assassination.

As she moves closer towards her goal, she begins to question her own motives, and whether she’s really cut out for this type of work.

Lack Lust-er

The story is interesting enough, and there’s enough to think about regarding the emotional implications of Jiazhi’s mission. However, I was never gripped.

There was never a time I thought ‘I can’t stop reading because I’m desperate to see what happens next’.

Characters throughout failed to resonate with me, and I couldn’t have remembered their names without looking back on my notes.

In writing this book review of Lust, Caution, I did struggle to fill out the usual details of a book, given how small this collection is.

I suppose that’s also my problem with these… The characters change, so you are continually meeting people you care nothing for. If it had been a longer story, I think I’d have enjoyed it more.

Naked Earth sits on my bookshelf, where it will remain for the time being. But as it is a full novel, I’m willing to give her work another shot.

Closing Thoughts

I was disappointed with my first readings of Eileen Chang. I’m not sure what I expected from this, but I did want something that held a little more tension.

Whilst the writing isn’t bad, and the characters are dynamic enough, there’s not too much at stake because caring for wealthy aristocrats can be difficult.

I realise I’ve been incredibly passive with this review, but it just wasn’t for me.

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