The Song of the Jade Lily
By Kirsty Manning
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Jeanie
Kirsty Manning makes her US debut with this gripping historical novel that tells the little-known story of Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai during WWII.
1939 : Two young girls meet in Shanghai, also known as the “Paris of the East”. Beautiful local Li and Jewish refugee Romy form a fierce friendship, but the deepening shadows of World War II fall over the women as they slip between the city’s glamorous French Concession district and the teeming streets of the Shanghai Ghetto. Yet soon the realities of war prove to be too much for these close friends as they are torn apart.
2016: Fleeing London with a broken heart, Alexandra returns to Australia to be with her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm. Her grandfather is dying, and over the coming weeks Romy and Wilhelm begin to reveal the family mysteries they have kept secret for more than half a century. As fragments of her mother’s history finally become clear, Alexandra struggles with what she learns while more is also revealed about her grandmother’s own past in Shanghai.
After Wilhelm dies, Alexandra flies to Shanghai, determined to trace her grandparents’ past. Peeling back the layers of their hidden lives, she is forced to question what she knows about her family—and herself.
The Song of the Jade Lily is a lush, provocative, and beautiful story of friendship, motherhood, the price of love, and the power of hardship and courage that can shape us all. (From Goodreads)
This is an incredibly powerful novel, a riveting read with stunning plot twists. The characters are likable, their friendship and loyalty fierce, and the story a testament of survival of a tumultuous time of world history. I learned more about WWII, specifically the part Shanghai, and later Melbourne, played a critical role to Jewish refugees. European history during these years is critical for us to know so that another Holocaust does not occur. Ever. Some scenes might be a little challenging for some readers who are sensitive to violence but are not contrived or prolonged.
Romy Bernfeld was twelve when Kristallnacht occurred in Vienna. She and her parents witnessed the murder of one of her brothers, Benjamin, who tried to help their music teacher up from being attacked by a former friend/ now soldier, while her other brother, Daniel is taken away. This devastation haunted their family throughout the rest of their lives.
With assistance from a neighbor who helped many Jews escape, the Bernfeld’s went to Shanghai. They had one benefit that most who left Europe did not, a grateful benefactor. Romy’s father, a doctor, saved the life of the cousin of a wealthy man who owned an upscale hotel in Shanghai. The man gave them a room at the hotel for their first month in China. He arranged for Papa to be hired at the Jewish Hospital, then helped them find an apartment in the French Concession of Shanghai.
Romy met her lifelong friend, Nina, whose mother died giving birth to a stillborn girl on the ship to Shanghai. Upon arrival, Nina had to stay at a women’s facility, as her uncle, already living there in the men’s facility, was unable to afford a place for the two of them. Thankfully, Papa was able to arrange with Eva Schwartz, of the International Committee overseeing Nina’s stay, for Nina to visit Romy. Papa also secured meds, some on the black market, for use at the hospital and for those assisted by Eva.
At their new apartment, Romy met their neighbors: her new friend Li, Li’s brother Jian, and their parents, Dr. Ho and Wilma. Dr. Ho is a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, and owns the shop where their amah, Mei, gets the herbs to help heal Romy’s mother from the shock and grief of losing her sons. When Romy’s mother begins to recover, she and Wilma were good friends. Li and Romy had an unbreakable bond. Li’s dream was to use her incredible songbird voice to entertain. Jian was an artist both with sketching and photography; he also wrote down the recipes for decoctions made for her mother. Romy also met Wilhelm, who had a bakery there. She fell completely, totally in love with him, the kind of love that nothing would change. They later married in Melbourne, Australia, after the war.
Alexandra, the beloved granddaughter Romy and Wilhelm raised after the death of her parents, is a top-dollar commodities trader in London. She returned to Melbourne for several weeks when Wilhelm’s was dying. Alexandra wants to learn more about Sophia, her mother, adopted when her grandparents were still in Shanghai. Her parents were brilliant mathematicians, as she is, and she begins to question now she is using her talents only to make money for herself and others. She also has a diary her mother used, with only a couple entries in it, but no birth certificate. This information only raises more questions, as it seems Sophia had her own questions about her background. Alexandra has an imminent transfer to the Shanghai office of her company where she will go when returning to work. She plans to do whatever possible while there to find out about her mother’s family; Romy is now her only known relative.
Romy and Alexandra are so well defined that I felt as if I knew them personally by the end of the novel. The characters are phenomenal, each in their own way, as they adapted to and survived the worst offered by WWII. Romy is by far my favorite, with Alexandra and Nina taking a close second. Li and Jian’s stories are critical, also, as they do what is necessary to protect each other, and their friends.
One thing I learned is how the Bernfeld’s and many others were allowed to communicate with Daniel at Dachau, once he was located. He also wrote to them as allowed. Throughout the war they work to get passage and paperwork for him to go to Shanghai. While the back-and-forth of the story between Shanghai and Melbourne, past and present, was a bit challenging at first, it made sense as I continued reading. This is Romy’s story through and through, but Alexandra also has a major part in it. Watching her change with regards to her career, and through meeting and spending time with Jhang, was kind of like watching a butterfly emerge from a cocoon. She and Romy are indeed the beautiful butterflies who survived the harsh winds of a long winter in their battered cocoons to flourish and thrive in unexpected places and circumstances. I highly recommend it to those who appreciate well-written World War II women’s fiction with strong characters amidst the worst of trying circumstances. This is the author’s first novel released in the US and the birth of a new best seller.