(Penguin Classics; translated into English for the first time)From the flashes of diamond-clad fingers at the mah-jong table of the collaborating political elite, to the complaining internal monologue of a foreigner’s ‘amah’ (maidservant), faced with ration shortages in the darkest corners of  WWII Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Eileen Chang’s five short stories are steeped in vividly involving description. At times alarmingly cynical – for example, Mr Garter’s consolation that his sleeping amah is ugly, as competent servants are harder to find than easy women – the stories are more than a comment on the political situation of wartime Shanghai at Chang’s time of writing. They explore the gritty reality of raw emotion, exposed as if from within each character’s thoughts. Although love is hinted at and aspired to, it is with dexterity that Chang handles the confused lust of a young ‘femme-fatale’, the spitefulness of the sister-in-laws of a new bride, and the humiliation of ageing wives discarded by their husbands in favour of young concubines. Chang’s real triumph is her understanding of her female characters, although it is not always with a sympathetic view that she illustrates their grievances. The title novella of this collection is sadly misrepresentative of the charming simplicity of the remaining four stories. It gives the impression of being the bare skeleton of a much longer and more intricate plot. Indeed its overly complex array of characters and spy-plot circumstances only confuse the reader, and detract from the perfection of the language used to render what is nevertheless a tale of tense emotion. It is only a shame that Chang did not expand on the intrigues of this short story to a fully explicated novel. Owing to this is perhaps the success of the novella’s adaptation for the big screen (under the same title), and the Golden Lion which it won at the Venice Film Festival.Fortunately, this is true of ‘Lust, Caution’ alone. In the other four tales of occupied Shanghai, the beauty of Chang’s Chinese metaphor is enhanced by more simple plots. ‘In the Waiting Room’ takes the reader into the lives of its patients, their various individual tales momentarily interwoven in their common wait, whilst their seemingly petty worldly woes are symbolic of a more universal intertwining of human experience. The tales are a comment on Shanghai society from every perspective: the serving classes, old Chinese money and the ‘Nouveau Riche’. However, neither this nor the translation from Chinese makes them inaccessible to the Western reader, thanks both to the richness of the descriptive language and to the delicacy with which the translators have dealt with Chinese metaphor. ‘Wrapped in layers of clothes, her white, fleshy body was like a big, solid rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves.’: the language achieves the feat of conjuring a very specific Chinese image, even in the Western mind, whilst the plot introduces the reader to the complexities of, and frictions within, the Chinese social order and familial relationships. By Sarah Fleming