Jody Shields’s new novel, “The Winter Station,” takes place in 1910 Kharbin, a bleak Russian-controlled outpost in Manchuria. People are dying; their bodies are disappearing mysteriously. Baron von Budberg, the town’s aristocratic doctor, discovers an epidemic and a coverup.
In this tale based on an actual Manchurian plague, much is still unknown about the transmission of the disease, even to the various Eastern and Western doctors. The city’s Russian ruler tells the Baron, “Information does not belong equally to everyone.” He goes to great lengths to protect information — and his own power. But a secret like the plague doesn’t keep for long.
Shields surrounds the Baron with fascinating people, including a black marketeer, a Chinese dwarf and the Baron’s subservient wife. But our ostensible hero, the Baron, is more a set of eyes than a character, and seems to exist only to wander through the various medical frustrations of 1910.
“Their knowledge was nothing but theories and guesswork propelled by fear,” he thinks. “A fist against a giant wave, a wall of brick.” Science has a long way to go, and he feels for his patients, but he’s mostly holding hands. “The Baron couldn’t look at them, without a sense of betrayal as he checked them for symptoms. He was repeatedly overwhelmed by a wave of tenderness, a longing to stop this process, to explain the situation, turn them aside from their fate.”
Unfortunately, the Baron’s lack of efficacy is matched by his lack of personality, which makes for some slow, frustrating reading. He takes calligraphy breaks every few chapters, but this doesn’t shed any light on his character or move the story along. “He was untethered,” Shields writes. “With the detachment of an observer, he realized that he’d pass the rest of his life here.” We share that concern.
Does this story want to be a mystery? A thriller? It appears so in the beginning, along with seeds of political intrigue, as “the Japanese army waits like a cat for a mouse,” hoping the plague will cripple the city. But the story drifts away from that idea, back toward the slow destruction of withering souls.
“The Winter Station” may be an accurate story about a plague, but it will not infect you with the desire to keep turning the pages.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif.
By Jody Shields
Little, Brown. 352 pp. $27