Historical Fantasy novels are thick on the shelves these days, but Historical Surrealism is amazingly rare. In fact, Aya Katz's "Our Lady of Kaifeng", Part One (www.CreateSpace.com), may be the first in that category since "The Saragossa Manuscript", written nearly 200 years ago.
The tale begins, as illustrated by the neo-Fauve cover painting, with the heroine riding across 1941 Japanese-occupied China in a wheelbarrow, heading for a Catholic girls' school run by a group of nuns with male saints' names -- and it gets weirder from there. One of the nuns is spying on the others, and all of them know it. One of the priests is obsessed with finding revelations in an ancient Chinese translation of the Old Testament, as preserved by an old Chinese Jewish family. One of the students is an erotomaniac who falls madly in love with any man -- including a teacher -- who shows her any kindness. There's a covert war going on between the priests and nuns from Italy -- including the Vatican -- who might or might not be siding with the occupying Japanese army, and everyone else at the school. The students make it clear that they don't want to learn how to think for themselves, but only to memorize data that they can dutifully repeat on government tests to win themselves approved government jobs. The heroine turns out to be a 40-year-old virgin, and an atheist, who has a daughter gotten by artificial insemination. The nuns are in the middle of arguing what to do about her when the Japanese army puts the whole school under arrest because America has just declared war on Japan. That's where Part One ends, fittingly, on a cliff-hanger.
The weirdness is, if anything, emphasized by Katz's understated Hemingwayesque style that treats practical school problems, bizarre politics and paranoid diatribes with equal calm detachment. It's furthered by the bizarre characters who stroll convincingly through the equally bizarre situations around them. Since the story is told from the heroine's point of view, this gives the sense of her personality being the same, viewing the weird events around her with an innocent astonishment or an amused equanimity. All things considered, those are probably the most sensible attitudes to take.
Knowing a bit about what happened after America entered World War Two, I can't wait to see Part Two of this series, if only to see how much more bizarre the story gets.