The Song of the Jade Lily: A Book Review


The novel, The Song of the Jade Lily, by Kirsty Manning deals with the little-known subject of the lives of Jewish refugees in Shanghai China during world War II. It is based on the historical fact that the Chinese issued over 30,000 visas to Austrian Jews in 1937 and 1938. The Chinese Ambassador to Austria, Dr. Ho Feng Shen felt for the Jews in Austria and provided visas to help as many as he could escape the Nazis.

The novel follows the Bernfeld family as they flee Austria and go to live in Shanghai. Their youngest child Romy is a teenager in Shanghai. One of her brothers is killed trying to leave and the other is thrown into a concentration camp. Romy suffers survivor’s guilt as she, her mother, and her father try to build life in China.

Romy befriends a Chinese girl her own age. Li Ho is a beautiful and talented singer and becomes Romy’s best friend. The Japanese take Shanghai and the Chinese become as persecuted in their own country as the Jews were in Austria. The travails of the Ho and Bernfeld families as they struggle to survive the war makes for a gripping tale of wartime existence.

There is another piece to this novel. Set in 2016, it is the story of Romy’s granddaughter Alexandra. She is a half Jewish half Chinese mathematical whiz who is a talented commodities buyer for a major London financial house. Alexandra comes home to Australia when her grandfather, Romy’s husband, dies.

Through Alexandra we learn about Romy’s Australian, post-war life. But the book hints at a dark secret about Alexandra’s mother, Romy’s deceased daughter.

Ultimately, Alexandra gets herself transferred to Shanghai. She begins an investigation to find out what happened to her mother. The results of the search reveal to Alexandra her own origins, and the true character of the grandmother she so deeply loves.

The Song of the Jade Lily is a well plotted book, slowly revealing to the reader the choices and sacrifices people have to make to survive in wartime. The book covers a period of Jewish and Chinese history not well known to people in the west. The horrors of the Japanese occupation of China are brought home through the suffering of these fictional characters. Each character is symbolic of the milieu of Shanghai in the second world war-as west meets east. The results are an exciting roller coaster ride of a read.