The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning
I often wonder when a new work of historical fiction about the Second World War is published what more can be said about that time. It must be a challenge to develop a story that has not already told. For a young Australian author, Kirsty Manning, it was because she knew nothing about the fact that many Jews escaped to Shanghai, as the Europe fell under Nazi control, until she read of it herself for the first time. She tells her story in a new novel The Song of the Jade Lily.
It was possible to enter Shanghai without a visa at a time when many other countries would not accept Jewish refugees. And it was, and is, a fascinating part of Jewish and Chinese history. Younger readers should know about this time, and this novel does an admirable job of telling the story, through the voice of a young woman who lived it and a contemporary character, a young woman who is looking for answers about her heritage, as she struggles with moral issues involved in her own work. I found The Song of the Jade Lily a compelling story of a Jewish family who leave Vienna in 1938 for Shanghai, spending the war there, before emigrating to Australia when the Second World War comes to an end.
The Bernfeld family lived well in Vienna until the Nazi occupation when all Jews then found their lives restricted and in danger. Dr. Bernfeld uses a connection that allows him passage for his family to Shanghai, and the guarantee of a job. At this time the city of Shanghai was divided between the affluent, almost Parisian, Frenchtown, and the poor district of Hongkew, across the Garden Bridge. The experience of those living in each district is dramatically different. During their time in Frenchtown the Bernfeld’s live without personal hardship, though Dr. Bernfeld works to help those less fortunate in Hongkew who are living with hunger and hardship.
It is Romy Bernfeld who is at the centre of the story, a young girl when she arrives in Shanghai, and a young woman when she leaves. The story of the past is about Romy and her friend Nina from Austria, and her friend Li in Shanghai. Their school days, their teenage years, and their lives as young women during wartime are chronicled.
The contemporary part of the story involves Romy’s granddaughter, Alexandra, and her quest to find out about her birth mother’s heritage. Alexandra grew up without her parents, who died young in an automobile accident, her mother a baby of mixed race who was brought from China by Romy at the end of the war.
Alexandra works in London, England as a commodities trader – a job at which she excels. As the novel begins Alexandra is back in Australia to see her grandfather in the days before his death, and to stay with her grandmother afterwards. Alexandra is about to take on a position in Shanghai – where she intends to find answers to the questions that she feels she cannot ask her grandmother. She is also nursing a broken heart after the end of a long time relationship in London. So, we have a somewhat dramatic contemporary love story, and a young woman’s need to know about her origins, woven into a story about the Second World War experiences of Jewish refugees, and the Chinese who become their friends, sharing their culture, past and present.
The Song of the Jade Lily tells the story of wartime Shanghai and those who waited out the war there, as well as the struggle of those survivors when they later re-entered life in a safer place – always haunted by their experiences, and often unable to share the past with those they love in the present time.