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Australian author Kirsty Manning has written two historical novels, but The Song of the Jade Lilly (or just The Jade Lily in Australia) is her US debut. It combines different genres, switching between Shanghai during the second world war and in the present day, giving the reader romance, mystery, tragedy, strong female lead characters, Chinese medicine and cooking. Fundamentally it is a book about war, the dehumanization of some groups by others, and the atrocities that result. But it is also illuminating an aspect of World War II that will be unfamiliar to most readers: the migration of many groups to Shanghai in China to flee Nazi oppression, and the heinous treatment of those people and the local people by the Japanese military.
The central character of the book is Romi. We meet her at the start of the book in pre-war Vienna when she is a young girl. Her Jewish parents are trying to get their family out of the country but it is almost impossible to find a country that will accept them. One of Romi's brothers is murdered by a Nazi soldier and another is sent to the Auschwitz camp. Finally, her parents decide to go to Shanghai. Romi is amazed to discover that Shanghai is a cosmopolitan city showing American movies and selling expensive products from all over the world. But her family moves to the Ghetto, a sector for stateless refugees. Romi meets a Chinese girl of the same age, Lee, and they immediately become best friends. The story follows them as the Japanese rule becomes increasingly brutal, to the eventual end of the war.
We also see Romi in 2016 Australia, mourning the death of her husband, and being cared for by her granddaughter Alexandra. Alexandra is young and rich, working in finance, doing deals every day that trade millions of dollars, and she travels all over the world. But she is having an existential crisis, wondering who she is and how she should be living her life. She researches into her grandmother's past, trying to find out more about the old woman, and to decide who she wants to be.
It's quite a long novel at 480 pages (12 hours in the unabridged audiobook performed by Saskia Maarleveld). A lot happens, drawing the reader into the exotic and multidimensional world of mid-century Shanghai and international conflict. The depiction of the city and its many cultural elements is vivid. The story is dramatic. The chapters (74 of them) are mostly short. The shift between time periods helps readers maintain a perspective from the current day and provides a contemporary character with whom to identify, although this also feels largely like a device to make the book more readable, and does little to advance the essentials of the story. The romance is also laid on a bit thick, although it is more justified by one of the central plot twists. Readers will hope that Kirsty Manning has done plenty of historical research in describing this part of history. Certainly the central features of the history in the book match with standard accounts of what happened. Occasionally readers may wonder whether some of the details are created in the aid of art rather than being based in fact. The strength of the book is that readers will want to find out more about Shanghai after finishing this story.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.
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