Monday, January 06, 2020

The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

This long  and beautifully constructed novel bounces back and forth between Vienna in the late 30s and early 40s, Melbourne 2016, and Shanghai (also in the late 30s and 40s).

It is the story of a friendship between a beautiful Shanghai girl, Li, and a Jewish refugee, Romy. They meet in Shanghai in 1939. The two become instant best friends  who explore densely populated Shanghai “Paris of the East”. While author Manning insists that it is a work of fiction, it is nevertheless a well researched historical novel. As she explains in the author’s notes, “Shanghai had opened its doors to more than twenty thousand refugees fleeing Europe, at a time when no other country would.”

The story begins in Vienna as Romy, 12, is literally dragged along by her parents through a scene of chaos , smoke and flying glass everywhere as the Jewish ghetto is raised in what would come to be known as Kristallnacht. Both of Romy’s brothers are dragged off by Nazi soldiers only one of whom lives long enough to be sent to a concentration camp.

Without telling too much of this novel, suffice it to say that Romy and her father eventually escape Vienna by fleeing first to Italy which was not yet conjoined with Germany, and then by boat to Shanghai. Romy’s father is a doctor and soon finds employment in the Jewish hospital in Shanghai and Romy begins her exciting relationship with Li. The third strand of the story takes the reader to Melbourne in 2016.  Alexandra has recently left London and a relationship she had thought would culminate in marriage and rushes to Melbourne to be with her dying grandpa, Wilhelm and her grandmother Romy. 

The author takes the readers through the four sections (or con cessions)  of Shanghai: the International Concession, the ghetto where Jews are permitted to live and work,, the zone controlled by the Japanese, and the French concession full of luxury hotels and shops. Manning always takes the time to describe in detail the huge variety of food and flowers to be seen there. Knowing so very little of Shanghai, and nothing of its tolerance of Jewish refugees during the war, I was stunned by the descriptions of this magical city.

The character of Li, while fictional, is based on a very famous Shanghai singer; Li lives in a luxurious hotel that she and Romy come to know in great detail. Theirs is one of  several close friendships between female characters in the book. Another is that between Romy and Nina, both Jewish refugees who end up in Melbourne.

Alexandra wants to learn of the histories of her grandparents and after the death of Wilhelm, her grandfather, she goes to Shanghai  and begins her search to uncover their stories. 
While I was writing a story about refugees and how China opened their doors and hearts to the Jews, Australia was locking up refugees who attempted to come there by boat. Why haven’t the lessons of  history taught us to treat people better?
Besides introducing me to Shanghai and is treatment of Jews during World War II, the author also discovers many other interesting bit of war history. 
I also discovered that before 1940 it was possible to be released from a concentration camp if you had a valid passport, visa, permit to take up residency in another country, and proof of transport. Such release was always subject to the prisoner leaving Germany within a limited time. The time frame and the documents needed varied from case to case.
As you read this lovely if often frightening book, I think you might begin to hear echoes of the song of the Jade Lily, almost able to see the beautiful Li as she sang for her enthralled audiences. It is obvious that the author has been captured by the sights and sounds of Shanghai, and she manages to give her readers a window into that world.

One strand of the novel I have not touched on is that of the relationship between traditional Chinese medicine and mainstream medicine. Both Romy and her mother had a keen interest in Chinese medicine as does author Manning, seeing them as adjuncts rather than opposites. 

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