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Review: The Winter Station, by Jody Shields
Little, Brown, 2018. 334 pp. $27

In Kharbin, a northern Chinese railroad nexus under czarist Russian rule (it’s 1910), dead bodies appear in the streets in ever-increasing numbers. The Baron, the city’s medical commissioner, slowly and methodically deduces that the cause must be plague, and not bubonic, either, but a strain he’s never seen or heard of. However, no one wants to hear it, and though the Baron has connections — he’s an aristocrat, which matters, and he has the ear of General Khorvat, the military governor — he can’t act as quickly or as thoroughly as he’d like. The Baron has also compromised that urgency, however, by coming rather slowly to accept that the deaths are from plague. By the time officialdom concedes the obvious, it’s too late to save the populace. The medical organization belatedly assembled lacks cohesion, common purpose, or even an altruistic outlook. The Baron soon becomes a minority voice for humane policy, sensitivity, duty to heal, and sound science.

Russian, Chinese, and Japanese on Kitaiskaia Street, Kharbin (Harbin), perhaps during the 1920s (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, politics rules, and a hard-hearted goddess she is. The Russian administration cares nothing for the Chinese inhabitants of Kharbin, who, at first, constitute the vast majority of plague victims, and whom the Russians blame for the disease, as though they themselves couldn’t possibly be carriers. What counts is to keep order and please the czar. The Imperial Throne in Beijing (which, incidentally, would be overthrown the following year) cares only for its international prestige. What matters is that the Russian government doesn’t push Chinese medical experts around, and that no foreigner ever criticizes the measures taken. Worse, to supervise those measures, Beijing sends a young, arrogant microbiologist interested only in saving face and advancing his own career. Meanwhile, Japan, victor of the Russo-Japanese war six years earlier, has apparent ambitions in Manchuria that make both other governments nervous.

Shields excels at portraying these conflicts, inevitably personal as well. The Baron, married to a Chinese woman and respectful of Chinese traditions, can never say anything in council without his Russian colleagues calling him a “Chinese lover” and dismissing his views out of hand. Bigotry and dissension are therefore as virulent as the plague, and just as destructive. Kharbin falls apart before the reader’s eyes, and you witness how people progressively cut themselves off from human feeling and connection, as if those qualities too spread contagion.
Against this tide stand the Baron and his few friends, who try to find respite, something to hold onto:

Chinese calligraphy was the Baron’s solace in the evening. On the narrow stage of his desk, under lamplight, a rectangle of white paper was the shape of discipline. He could barely fathom the perimeters of its difficulty, the years of practice, but this elusiveness and uncertainty was part of calligraphy’s seduction. When he was lost, nervous about executing a brushstroke, he had learned to wait calmly until the character was visualized and wavered into shape, opening like a novelty flower of folded paper in water. He sometimes dreamed about written Chinese characters, angular brushstrokes, thick and thin, scattered like dark hay over a field of white paper or his wife’s hair loose against a pale cushion, black as sticks. Paper was a surface with the impermanence of snow.

Shields also depicts elaborate tea ceremonies, in which the doctors summon up pleasant memories as their only defense against despair. Like the calligraphy practice, these scenes are beautifully rendered and very affecting. But The Winter Station feels too brutal to me, seemingly insistent on grinding hope to single molecules, which will then blow away in a stiff wind. Love can’t survive the plague; nothing can. After a while, I felt pounded reading The Winter Station, a mood I never experienced with Albert Camus’s masterpiece, The Plague, or Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, both of which are plenty grim. Shields’s style sometimes aggravates the pounding, as when she’ll write a brilliant scene in which the Baron’s enemies outmaneuver and marginalize him — and then she’ll tell you that’s what they did.

The Winter Station offers vividness, power, and depth. But it’s too bleak for me to recommend wholeheartedly.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.