Saturday, August 17, 2019

Howie Balaban: The Things We Do (and Endure) For Life & Love

A few weeks ago I was perusing the Lee-Whedon Library new release shelves and happened upon a book whose cover was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Featuring an Asian woman and a blue Star of David (with a small cityscape within it) I was intrigued. So, I did what any normal person would do: I picked it up. And no, I am not saying it is possible to judge a book by its cover. However, in this instance, the cover definitely drew me to the book.
The book cover featured a line from Heather Morris, who wrote The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a book I finished earlier this year and found to be an emotional roller coaster of a worthwhile read. I checked out the synopsis on the inner book flap and made the instantaneous decision to borrow The Song of the Jade Lily from the library.

Upon completing the book, I determined that was a great decision.
Written by Kirsty Manning, The Song of the Jade Lily tells two stories. One follows young Viennese girl Romy from before to after World War II. The second story follows Alexandra, Romy’s granddaughter, as she seeks the truth of exactly where she comes from. 
The premise of both stories focused on a bit of history I’m ashamed to admit I did not know much about. During WWII, thousands of European Jews who sought to escape the growing Nazi stronghold sought refuge – and found it – in Shanghai. Manning crafted a page-turning story with The Song of the Jade Lily that I found equal parts interesting, engrossing, and horrifying.
I suppose one could say that the entire story is about Romy, and how she was able to persevere in such harsh conditions. Early on in the novel, as we are getting to know one of our primary heroines, we are witness to the atrocities and barbarism that occurred in the aftermath of Kristallnacht as Romy and her parents and brothers are preparing to leave Vienna, Austria. In the process of doing so, one of her brothers was killed right in front of her in brutal fashion and another is taken to Dachau. Thanks to some good neighbors who appreciated her parents and the status they had in their community, Romy and her parents are told to book passage to Shanghai since, with the world in chaos, there would be little chance of anyone checking visas. Their neighbors even help to pay for the trip.
The story of Romy and her parents, and one lifelong friend, Nina, continues in Shanghai, lasting from their arrival in early 1939 through the end of WWII. During those years, we follow Romy along as she appreciates each bit of luck that comes her way, such as befriending Li and Jian Ho and their parents, and later meeting and developing a crush on a young refugee, Wilhelm. Romy’s life includes learning medicine by shadowing and learning from her father, Dr. Oskar Berfeld. Her mother, Marta, who is affectionately called Mutti throughout the story, is also depicted as a strong woman of high character who seeks to help others as often as she can once she recovers from losing one son and learns how to deal with the fear of how the other is faring. It can be said that the unwavering strength the Bernfelds outwardly exhibited in this story is the stuff only few of us can even imagine in the face of such historically bad incidents. 
Romy and her parents find a temporary home in one of the apartments in the French Concession within Shanghai. As the story progresses, though, the tenuous “peace” the Bernfelds find there slowly deteriorates as the Chinese and Japanese descend into war, and eventually, the peace is paper thin as WWII officially breaks out.
But the family must do what it can to survive. The Hos – Li and Jian – become fast friends and their parents, also medical practitioners, albeit of a different variety, help whenever they can. As we get to know the Hos, we learn that Li is a stunning beauty whose voice is a thing of envy, and Jian is a man of impeccable integrity who can be trusted at all times, even in questionable circumstances. In the latter half of the book, we, the readers, watch in horror as Romy’s friends suffer from an unspeakable, gruesome event. It sets Romy and the Hos on divergent paths as each of them seeks to find a way to go on living in wartime. Their paths do cross again at times, and each time brings about new challenges.
In the present-day timeline, we quickly learn the basics about Alexandra. As mentioned earlier, she is Romy’s granddaughter, but her mother, Sophia, was adopted. She works as a commodities trader who measures success by profits earned through each deal. When we first meet her, she is fresh off a break-up with Hugo. (For the record, every time Hugo is mentioned, he comes off as a shallow buffoon. So, good for Alexandra!) While she makes her home in London, Alexandra is making the trip to Australia to visit Romy and her dying grandfather, Wilhelm. (Yes, the Wilhelm mentioned earlier.)
On his deathbed, Wilhelm awakens long enough to say some parting words to Alexandra. Upon seeing her, though, he calls her Li, and then calls her Sophia. Alexandra, perplexed, corrects him, and he goes on about her upcoming job in Shanghai. He then adds that Alexandra won’t find Li, but looks quite a bit like her.
And sure enough, that is how Manning is able to bait any reader into thinking they know exactly how everything will play out for Alexandra as she takes that job in Shanghai and seeks out any and all information about her biological family in her spare time. Let’s say this: if you think you know how the mystery plays out, you’re wrong. There are enough twists and a-ha moments in the book’s final act and epilogue that leave you amazed at the openness of both Romy and Wilhelm’s respective hearts, the size of which we can all hope to have.
The present-day mystery surrounding Alexandra takes her on quite a trip, during which time she visits the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum to find out as much as she can about her past, but each answer leads to more questions, including some that lead to her needing to travel to Hong Kong before ultimately solving the case at her grandmother’s Australian home. Early on in her quest, Alexandra meets Zhang, who is a definite upgrade from Hugo. He is someone who works to live, rather than someone who lives to work. His zest for life, and for being in the moment, is something that awakens a long-dormant part of Alexandra. (This part of the story could be considered a bit cliché, but it works.)
As we reach the end of the parallel storylines, there is much that is uncovered about the end of the war, and Romy and Wilhelm’s post-war life. One snippet of information near the end of the story is finally divulged, and it makes something Romy says to Wilhelm in the beginning of the story – “Forgive me.” – take on added meaning. Past secrets are finally exposed, with Nina, who was the only other person in on them, right there for support. Again, you may think you have this figured out. You don’t.
Over the years, I’ve read some outstanding historical fiction surrounding the Holocaust. During my childhood, I found the books Number the Stars and The Devil’s Arithmetic to be eye-opening stories that showed the strength and resolve of young people who faced such unwarranted hatred and rose above it. For a number of reasons, I haven’t necessarily “looked” for those kinds of stories in my adult life. Normally, I let them find me, and I’m very picky. For instance, the movie Life is Beautiful was an outstanding example of the strength of the human spirit in the darkest times. In my opinion, the end of that movie is one of the most emotional 10 minutes ever put on film. While watching Band of Brothers on HBO, the episode “Why We Fight” is a gut punch when the concentration camp is discovered. 
It cannot be understated how much of a stain on human history the Holocaust is, and reading about it, even if the story is fiction, can be hard. Perhaps that is why Manning’s story jumped out at me. It was different in that it focused on the ones who escaped Hitler’s reach. No, they did not entirely escape war, but they managed to survive, and then in the aftermath, they managed to live and love again.
Finding The Song of the Jade Lily and reading it was an experience. I looked for some reviews online and found a few that complained about some violence (um, it was wartime, so what would you expect?) and another bunch who felt the author spent too much time describing scents and smells either in the past or the present. The descriptive bits could have been lessened a bit, as they did seem to get a bit long at times. However, they do not take away from the experience of reading this amazing story. Those descriptions were quite detailed, and in most instances, helped to paint a vivid picture for the reader.
This is a story that does reach a wholly satisfying conclusion that, no matter what you think after reading this, you will not truly see coming. 
And it is a story that will leave you asking yourself the following:
Just how far are you willing to go for the ones you love?

Howie Balaban thinks fiction based in WWII is a deeply personal choice and believes books and stories mean different things to different people depending on their backgrounds.