Book review: Love spans generations

Novel explores friendship and family, perseverance and resilience

July 31, 2019 16:37
4 minute read.
Book review: Love spans generations

THE FINANCIAL district of Pudong in Shanghai.. (photo credit: ALY SONG/REUTERS)

In her debut novel, The Song of the Jade Lily, Kirsty Manning moves back and forth in time to tell the story of two young women, Romy Bernfeld and Alexandra Laird.
Romy’s idyllic existence in Vienna is shattered by the Nazis. One of her brothers is killed during Kristallnacht. The other brother is sent to Dachau. Along with more than 20,000 refugees from Europe, many of them Jewish, the Bernfelds flee to Shanghai. Living at first in the French Concession district, Romy adapts well, making friends, learning about traditional Chinese medicine and studying to be a doctor. But when the Japanese take control of the city, World War II catches up with her and her parents. They are confined to the Shanghai Ghetto, their lives once again at risk.
In 2016, Alexandra Laird, a commodities trader, leaves London (and a broken romance) to visit her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm Cohen, in Australia. With her curiosity about her own mother (who was adopted by Romy and Wilhelm) aroused, Alexandra goes to Shanghai to try to uncover the truth. As she traces her family’s past, she also finds out a lot about herself.
The Song of the Jade Lily is a melodrama. Antisemitism, to be sure, sets the context. But as Manning indicates in her author’s note, she is mostly interested in exploring friendship and family, perseverance and resilience, “the price of love and the power of war.” Although she believes people “can be changed by circumstances,” the theme of the lily, “pure unfiltered love,” she claims, spans the generations.
Like many melodramas, The Song of the Jade Lily turns on “fateful coincidences.” The twists and turns of Manning’s plot, however, frequently strain credulity. Photographs appear. Decades-old letters turn up. People from the past run into Romy and Alexandra. The ending is, well, incredible.
Perhaps in an effort to build suspense, or because she does not trust her readers, Manning often steps on her own narrative by characterizing what dialogue and action have already made clear. Alexandra had “sworn off relationships,” she writes, “yet here she was with her hand [in Zhang’s] and she didn’t want him to let go... if she cared to admit it, she was happy to be led.” Romy “had made so many missteps trying to protect the people she loved,” Manning emphasizes, especially in trying to shelter Alexandra from trauma, “But what if the shadow of sadness that had always seemed to cling to her granddaughter was tied to Romy’s past?” With Jian and Li Ho hiding from the Japanese, Manning informs us that Romy’s “heart yearned for her missing friends.”

THE SONG of the Jade Lily is at its best when Manning illuminates how her characters shape their own identities, and even in extremis, exhibit human decency, generosity, and courage. Although her maxims can be dismissed as simplistic, at times they ring true. “When we feel that our grief will suffocate us and we simply don’t know how to continue,” Dr. Bernfeld tells Romy, “we still have choices. We can choose to give up, or we can choose to fill our time helping others, even if that means you have to step outside the rules sometimes to do the right – the just – thing.... You need to have something that drives you to live, not just exist.” Dr. Ho, Li and Jian’s father, often stands in his living room at Puyuan, repeating, “To starve to death is a very small matter; to lose one’s integrity is a grave matter.”
In Shanghai, we learn, Dr. Bernfeld lived his philosophy by securing anesthetics, insulin and equipment on the black market. Wilhelm Cohen arranged for Jews working in munitions factories in the city to shorten fuses so the grenades they produced would not explode. Dr. Ho continued to speak out against the Japanese occupation of China.
In September 1945, Manning writes, people began to gather and shout in the streets of the Hongkew Ghetto. A woman cries out, “Ceasefire.” An elderly rabbi tugs at his beard, straightens his jacket, looks at Romy in some bewilderment and asks, “Are we free?” Catching her breath, Romy replies, “I’m not sure.” A young boy in rags then yells “The war is over,” while his friend climbs up a wooden telegraph pole and tears down the sign stating, “Stateless refugees are not allowed to pass.”
Swept up in the jubilation, Romy dances a few steps to a violin waltz before stopping. “Where was she going?” she asks herself. A question Alexandra would ask as well in 2016 about her career as a commodities trader and her relationship with Zhang. Kirsty Manning invites her readers, whether or not they are Jewish, to ask perhaps with a fresh perspective, “Are we free?” They may discover that it can be empowering to respond, “I’m not sure.”

The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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