The story of The Jade Lily hinges on the friendship between two little girls who become neighbours in the French Quarter of Shanghai. Li is bouncy and full of life, a ready smile indented by two gorgeous dimples. Romy has already been touched by tragedy, having fled Germany with her parents after one of her brothers is killed in cold blood in front of her by a young Nazi soldier and another brother is taken away to Dachau.
An exciting and exotic story that ebbs and flows between present-day Shanghai and the dangerous city it became during WWII, The Jade Lily, Kirsty Manning’s second novel, is inspired by real events. (In the author’s note, we learn that Shanghai opened its doors to more than 20,000 refugees fleeing Europe at a time when no other country, Australia included, would).
While war brings upheaval and danger, at heart, The Jade Lily is the story of two families whose lives become inextricably intertwined after Li and Romy become inseparable. It is an unusual friendship, but those were unusual times. Shanghai in the 1930s, beautifully reimagined by Manning, is a place of great wealth and poverty, teeming with merchants, food vendors and refugees and sophisticated, glamorous, mysterious people wearing diamonds and sipping the best champagne in elegant hotels and nightclubs.
The reader lands in present day Shanghai alongside Romy’s grand-daughter, Alexandra, who goes there for work. The food vendors and their carts are still there, but modern Shangai is all towering skyscrapers, with the area known as the French Concession, where Romy and her family once lived, now studded with boutique wine bars, Indie fashion shops and European delis.
Alexandra is a commodities trader at the top of her game. She arrives in Shanghai feeling bruised, grieving for her adored grandfather who has just died and for her rich, handsome partner with whom she’s just broken up because he cheated on her. She doesn’t realise it yet, but she’s better off without him.
The story becomes a page-turner as it switches between grown up Alexandra and Romy as a child. There’s growing anxiety for Romy and her family, their new sense of security threatened by the brutal Japanese occupation of Shanghai. And Alexandra’s dislocation, not only as a newcomer to the city but because she’s grappling with a mystery about her background that no-one in the family back home in Australia seems able or willing to talk about.
She knows her mother Sophie was adopted by her grandmother Romy and brought to Australia as a baby when the family finally fled Shanghai. But the only leads she has is her mother’s diary which offers few clues, some sparse adoption related paperwork and a faded photograph of two young girls.
Then, just as fate intervened all those years earlier to bring the families together, it steps in again when Alexandra comes across a copy of that same photograph in a shop in Shanghai.
Meanwhile, the action in Shanghai ramps up as Japan enters WWII and life becomes much more dangerous for Romy and both families.
The switch in time and interweaving of twin plots is not an easy thing to pull off in a book. Nor is bringing history to life without weighing the story down with too many leaden facts, but Manning does both with panache.
The Jade Lily has a lot to offer – intrigue and adventure, a nice splash of romance, beautiful gardens, great food (think sizzling dumplings and noodles with chilli oil, yum) and great characters, with young Li and Romy stand-outs. But there’s also bigger picture stuff. Is it right to keep the truth from someone you love in order to protect them? And what does it really mean to be generous as a person and as a country, especially during desperate times?
Lots to enjoy – and think about.
Kirsty Manning grew up in northern New South Wales. A country girl with wanderlust, her travels and studies have taken her through most of Europe, the east and west coasts of the United States and pockets of Asia. Kirsty’s first novel was the enchanting The Midsummer Garden published in 2017. The Jade Lily, compelling and pacey, is her second book. Kirsty is a partner in the award-winning Melbourne wine bar Bellota, and the Prince Wine Store in Sydney and Melbourne. She lives with her husband and three children amid an old chestnut grove in the Macedon Ranges, Victoria.
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