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.