Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Cold Season in Shanghai

A novel by S. P. Hozy
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A Cold Season in Shanghai

A Cold Season in Shanghai by S. P. Hozy is an historical novel to be published by Napoleon & Company in September 2009 under its RendezVous Press adult fiction imprint. It's the story of two women, who meet as girls in Shanghai in the early part of the twentieth century. Their story is told through the eyes of Tatiana, who has arrived with her family in Shanghai as a child in 1905. There she becomes friends with Lily, a local businessman's daughter and this is their story as their lives take them through political upheaval, personal turmoil, a tumultuous love story ending in murder and their eventual reunion in Toronto in 1957.


It’s winter in Canada, in Toronto, where I’ve been living for the past twenty years since my marriage ended. The snow is piling up outside my door, and I know I won’t venture out for a few days. I will become even more melancholic, and perhaps I’ll drink a little too much gin. But who will really care? My sister Olga will phone tomorrow to ask how I am, and I will tell her I’m fine. She’ll choose to believe me because she’s much more interested in her grandchildren these days than in me.

In Shanghai, where I grew up, the winters were miserable, damp and cold. I learned to hate the rain even more than the snow. In Malaya, where I lived with my husband on a rubber plantation, the winters were as hot and sunny as the summers. The climate suited me fairly well, but in the end I could no longer endure the monotony or the marriage. I chose to come to Canada, where Olga and Jean Paul had emigrated a year after the birth of their second child. By that time both Papa and Mother were gone, both too soon and within a year of each other. Now that I’ve passed my sixtieth birthday, I think about the dead more than I think about the living. Sometimes this frightens me and I dump all the gin down the sink and swear I won’t drink again. But nothing changes, and I buy another bottle to ease the pain and the guilt.

Nowadays I’m preoccupied with the past. When I think back on myself as a young woman, I’m surprised at how naïve I was, but I realize it was a willful naïveté, just another way of maintaining the pretence of my life. I was obsessed with keeping it interesting and exciting. But where did that desperation come from? The more I pose the question these days, the more I begin to understand that the problem had more to do with my own character than with any of the circumstances surrounding me. I had a good family that loved me. I lived in a place that was often dangerous, yet I felt safe and secure within my world. I was educated and read books. Why did I become so contrary?

Today I marvel at how I could observe and participate in one kind of life and yet follow a completely different narrative in my mind. I insisted on telling the story the way I wanted it to be, and then I made myself believe it. Nobody could persuade me that the other version—the one they saw—was real. Especially not Olga or my parents. Not even Lily, when she tried. Annette, experienced in the ways of the world, never tried. She kept telling her story, “l’histoire de ma vie,” the way she wanted to hear it. But in Annette’s case I could understand. There were circumstances. Circumstances that could lead one to want to alter, or soften, the harsher aspects of the narrative. In my case there were none. At least not at first.

But everything changed after Daniel’s murder. Because I was the one who identified his body, I got to see the ugly reality of his death up close. That reality reduced the beauty of his short life to the single image of a bloated corpse on a metal table. It is an image that can still wake me in the middle of the night, gasping for air. I feel responsible, even though I didn’t fire the gun that put those bullets in his heart. Is the person who pulled the trigger the only one who is culpable? Surely I must bear some of the burden of guilt. I was, after all, the one who set the whole thing in motion.

Do we ever really forget? The dictionary says that to forget means not to remember, to cease thinking about. I forget. I have forgotten. But is forgetting an absolute? Or does memory simply drift away, evaporating like fog? Is there nothing that is active or aggressive about forgetting, no tossing away, no burning up the past so that only the ashes remain?

Even though I have tried to forget the events of 1927, especially as they happened to me and to my friends, I find myself remembering those events as if they happened yesterday. Shanghai and the smell of death and peonies. The stench was at once so harsh and acrid that I feel a bitterness burning my nose, even after thirty years. At the same time, there was a fragrance so sweet and delicious, I want to bury my face in it and inhale its loveliness again. To remember Shanghai is to remember my life between 1906 and 1927, to remember my childhood and growing up, and to remember Lily and Annette and Daniel.

Many things happened to the world in 1927. In Shanghai, there was turmoil and revolution. Then Daniel was murdered, and I left Shanghai forever.

Now, Lily’s letter has brought it all back to me with such clarity. She says she’s coming to Canada, to Toronto and asks if she can stay with me for a few days when she arrives. Her youngest brother, the one we always called Number Three Brother, has sponsored her. I’m surprised to hear that he wants her to live with him and look after his grandchildren. I would have thought she’d bring too much bad luck, but maybe he’s not as superstitious as he used to be. I wonder if we will talk about Daniel when she gets here. I wonder if she will finally tell me what really happened between them.

In the meantime, until she comes, I’ll drink another bottle of gin and try again to put the puzzle together. As always, I’ll go back to the beginning.

Shanghai, China

Chapter One

They stood at the rail of the ship as it sailed up the Yangtze River and into the Whangpoo River toward the harbour of Shanghai. It was an attractive family, Sergei, Katarina, and their two daughters, Olga and Tatiana, obviously a family of means. Sergei, a man of medium build, was handsome and well groomed even after the long ocean voyage. His dark brown hair had a natural wave and was carefully combed, as was his moustache and small, neatly trimmed beard. People often commented on his resemblance to the Tsar, to which he would reply, “It is the Tsar who bears a resemblance to me.” In truth, they were related, although Sergei didn’t always publicly lay claim to the relationship, for he disagreed with many of the Tsar’s misguided policies.

Sergei’s wife Katarina was nearly as tall as him and slender as a stalk of wheat. She was blonde and ivory-skinned and, unlike her husband, Katarina looked as if she had endured a long, hard sea voyage. Her clothes were wrinkled as if she had slept in them, although she hadn’t; and her expression was uneasy, as if she might be seasick, which she wasn’t.

Her eldest daughter Olga, who was nearly eleven, kept her eyes fixed on their destination, her expression serious but not fearful, curious but not impatient. She was shorter than her mother by several inches, and she stood very straight, possibly in an attempt to appear taller. She resembled her father more than her mother, although she had dark curly hair, tangled and unruly, which she had unsuccessfully attempted to stuff into a dark blue velvet cap.

Her sister Tatiana, younger by less than two years, was as different from Olga as two sisters could be. She was already an inch taller and had her mother’s slender build. Her hair was blonde with soft waves like her father’s, and her eyes were as blue as cornflowers. They were open wide with anticipation, filled with an eagerness her sister would not express, her mother did not feel, and her father revealed only in a smile and a wildly beating heart.

As they approached the harbour and the Bund, the area by the Whangpoo that had been rebuilt after a fire in 1894, it gradually came to life before their eyes. All kinds of junks and sampans floated shoulder to shoulder on the riverfront, bobbing and jostling each other like restless children forced to sleep in the same bed. The Relnikov family would later learn that people lived their entire lives on these vessels, often with as many as three generations living and working together on a junk or a sampan in this floating neighbourhood. Some of them survived by fishing, others transported goods along the river, either to sell them or to deliver them to the many warehouses that lined the wharf. Women gave birth on the boats and raised their children to live the very same life, the only life they knew.

The Bund was a place of constant motion, both in the muddy water and on the wide, equally muddy embankment where rickshaws and pedicabs cut each other off in the scuttle to deliver their cargo, human and otherwise. Clattering sounds gradually increased in volume as the ship drew nearer. The clatter of wooden wheels hitting stones; of cases and trunks hitting the ground as they were unloaded from wagons or handcarts; of voices shouting in Chinese, a sound the Russian family’s ears would eventually adjust to but never understand, except in the most rudimentary way. It was the clatter of the marketplace, of Chinese commerce, of life in a city that, as they would also learn, never slept.

They had come from Russia at the instigation of Sergei, who had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. How could he be otherwise? He claimed descent from Peter the Great, the tsar who had tried to bring Russia into the modern world. Because he was distantly related to Russian royalty, both of Sergei’s daughters had been named after Romanov princesses. Olga had been named for the Tsar’s first daughter, who had been born just weeks before her in 1895. Sergei’s second daughter, called Tatiana after the second royal daughter, was born on the same day as her namesake, June 10, 1897. They could not have imagined, of course, that both Romanov princesses, along with their two sisters, one brother and both parents, would be imprisoned and slaughtered by Bolshevik revolutionaries two decades later in the summer of 1918. Sergei’s decision to leave Russia in 1906 had been prophetic, but even he could not have imagined what was to come.

Excerpted from A Cold Season In Shanghai by S.P. Hozy. Toronto: Napoleon & Company, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

S.P. Hozy

S.P. Hozy was born in Toronto, and after graduating from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Psychology, she spent two decades working in the Canadian film industry, winning several awards for sound editing. She has traveled in North Africa, Europe, South America, Russia, Australia, and Asia, living at times in Brazil, Afghanistan, India, and Sri Lanka. She has
published poetry, and two of her short stories were runners-up in the Toronto Star Short Story Contest.

Currently based in Toronto and Malaysia, Penny continues to travel, recently visiting Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Singapore, researching the many books she plans to write. She continues to edit, ghostwrite, and index books, thanks to the wonders of technology.

Penny has completed her third novel, A Cold Season In Shanghai, which will be published by Rendezvous Press in the fall of 2009. She is currently working on her fourth novel, set in Singapore during two time periods, the 1920s and the present.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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