The Song of the Jade Lily

  • Review
By – September 16, 2019

The exot­ic sights and scents of Shang­hai as expe­ri­enced by the Jew­ish refugees who fled there dur­ing the Holo­caust are brought vivid­ly to life in Kirsty Manning’s grip­ping new nov­el, The Song of the Jade Lily. The book is told in alter­nat­ing chap­ters from the per­spec­tives of two com­pelling char­ac­ters: Romy Bern­feld, who escapes Vien­na with her par­ents after Kristall­nacht and lives in Shang­hai dur­ing World War II, and her grand­daugh­ter Alexan­dra, whose job sends her to Shang­hai from Aus­tralia, where she was raised by her dot­ing grand­par­ents. The par­al­lel sto­ries unfold as Alexan­dra search­es for infor­ma­tion about her family’s past in Shang­hai, reveal­ing Romy’s har­row­ing wartime expe­ri­ences and long-hid­den fam­i­ly secrets.

Man­ning express­es deep sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the plight of griev­ing refugees who were torn from fam­i­ly mem­bers and whose fate often remained unknown through­out the war. This will res­onate with read­ers who are famil­iar with the dev­as­tat­ing toll the Holo­caust took on fam­i­ly life.

Man­ning also por­trays the bru­tal occu­pa­tion of parts of Shang­hai by Japan­ese troops dur­ing the war and the pal­pa­ble fear expe­ri­enced by the Jews and their Chi­nese neigh­bors. This was even more ter­ri­fy­ing for Jews who had already expe­ri­enced the sav­agery of occu­py­ing Nazi troops. The author gives the read­er a clear sense of what it meant to live under con­di­tions of fear and uncer­tain­ty through the expe­ri­ences of the Bern­felds and oth­er res­i­dents of the city.

Man­ning vis­it­ed Shang­hai and has done exten­sive research on the expe­ri­ences of Jews who lived there dur­ing the war, which is reflect­ed in her evoca­tive depic­tion of life in the city. Her por­tray­al of day-to-day life is enriched by detailed descrip­tions of food prepa­ra­tion, tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese herbal med­i­cines, and Chi­nese cus­toms and traditions.

The best his­tor­i­cal fic­tion draws the read­er into a sto­ry and time peri­od so com­plete­ly that the char­ac­ters seem real. This book is cer­tain­ly in that cat­e­go­ry — the read­er gen­uine­ly comes to care about the char­ac­ters and their lives. It is evi­dent that the author cares deeply about not only her fic­tion­al char­ac­ters, but also the thou­sands of Jew­ish refugees who made it to Shang­hai. Man­ning por­trays their strength and resilience mem­o­rably in this beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten book.

Shi­ra R. Lon­don is the librar­i­an at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Com­mu­ni­ty High School in Bal­ti­more, MD. She holds an M.L.S. from Colum­bia University.

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