|Jul/Aug 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
The Jade Lily.
Allen & Unwin. 2018. 443 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76029 473 3.
Alexandra is an ambitious, very successful commodity trader. She is used to constantly watching the markets, leading a professional team and clinching highly profitable trades. We meet her as she is about to relocate from London to Shanghai but has been called to the bedside of her dying grandfather in Melbourne, where she grew up.
The family has a very mixed and traumatic background, and it is Alexandra's search for information about her mother, an orphan brought from China by her Austrian Grandmother, that is the theme of this book, and the jade lily pendant she inherited from her mother that gives the book its title.
Much of the book, however, is about her grandmother, Romy, who escapes from Vienna with her Jewish parents after the horrors of Nazi inspired Kristallnacht. Romy's brother Benjamin was shot; her other brother Daniel taken away to imprisonment in Dachau. Romy and her mother and father manage to flee to Shanghai along with many other Jewish refugees, and their constant wish that Daniel might join them there (release from Dachau under certain circumstances was possible), underlies some of the traumas in the book.
We see the horrors through Romy's teenage eyes. And we share her experiences as she and her parents land in Shanghai and learn to live an unfamiliar Chinese culture. There is much here about the squalor and beauty of old Shanghai and much, too, throughout the book, about Romy's experiences of Chinese customs, Chinese medicine, and, especially, Chinese food and cooking. Romy, helping her doctor father in a hospital in Shanghai, studies medicine but also learns much about Chinese herbal medicine, which she continues to use throughout her life.
War-time Shanghai is an unstable and divided city, with French and British enclaves, wealth, and extreme poverty. As the war in Europe escalates and the Japanese become involved, their presence in Shanghai becomes more powerful and controlling, and life there for Romy and her closest friends, Nina and Wilhelm, becomes so dangerous they must escape. Romy and Nina, as adoptive mother and carer for a baby (Sophia, Alexandra's mother) whose papers show no parental details, travel as refugees to Australia, where they are reunited with Wilhelm. Romy and Wilhelm eventually marry, and years later, Alexandra, as a baby, survives a car crash that kills her mother, Sophia, and her Australian father, so she is brought up by Romy and Wilhelm.
After the death of her beloved grandfather, Alexandra moves to take up her position in modern Shanghai. It is, of course, vastly changed since Romy lived there, but the culture, customs, and food are still uniquely Chinese. The descriptions in the book are vivid—the colors, the flavors, the pace of life all strongly present. Alexandra sees it through different eyes to Romy, and she comes to love it, but the secret of her mother's birth is deeply embedded in the story of Romy, Nina, and Wilhelm and in their lives in old Shanghai.
There are love stories here, especially that of Romy and Wilhelm. Alexandra's break up with her London partner and her growing involvement with her Chinese neighbor in Shanghai are woven into the matrix of the book, but the history and culture of old and new Shanghai pervade and make it more than just an ordinary romantic novel.