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Posted on 15 May 2018 in Fiction |

KIRSTY MANNING The Jade Lily. Reviewed by Kim Kelly

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Through the lens of friendship and romance The Jade Lily traces the way war smashes and transforms identity and truth.

Sometimes the secrets we keep are gifts of love, and it’s this kind of refreshingly unvarnished love that sits at the heart of Kirsty Manning’s sweeping historical epic, The Jade Lily

All the trademark tropes and tricks of the genre ensure a page-turning read, though, from the heart-stopping Hollywood opening in the midst of Kristallnacht in Vienna, 1938, to the equally brutal Japanese occupation of Shanghai that follows a few years later as the world explodes into total war, with many shocks and twists along the way. This is a well-studied example of the ever-popular dual-timeline narrative that sees a young heroine from the present day exploring the dramatic events of an ancestor’s past.

In this instance, our contemporary heroine, Alexandra, is a globetrotting commodities trader and numbers-whizz from Melbourne, who goes off in search of her Chinese heritage. She’s grown up believing that her mother was an orphan who her Austrian-Jewish grandparents – Romy and Wilhelm – adopted at the end of the war and brought with them on resettling in Australia. But the unravelling of long-held secrets upon her adoptive grandfather’s death sees Alexandra questioning it all.

Manning has chosen an unusual and interesting canvas for her characters, taking us not only into the colourful streets of wartime Shanghai, but into the Jewish refugee experience of those streets. It’s a chapter in the Holocaust and wider World War II story that’s little written about and, in this sense, any author who attempts to bring the overlooked into the light, especially via commercial fiction, should be applauded for the effort and risk. It’s no easy feat to walk in the shoes of those whose lives are, in so many ways, so different.

Perhaps, at times, the cultural complexity of the characters’ experiences are a little too sketchily drawn, and occasionally not quite convincing: Passover at one point is referred to as ‘the holy day’, when it’s a festival that runs for eight days; Jewish children have music lessons on Saturday afternoon when they probably wouldn’t have done so on Shabbat; and some of the snippets of language and descriptions of European Jewish food seemed more typically German rather than German-Jewish. But these quibbles pale inside Manning’s broader and clearly earnest ambition: to illuminate and give credibility to the fact that all refugees carry around with them a weight of untold and incredible stories.

There are many sweet and bright pearls of wisdom in these pages. ‘It’s easy to move a plant,’ we’re told by Romy, one such refugee. ‘But for a successful transplant we need to pay attention, nourish the roots. Let them spread and find their own way.’ And there is much plain talking, too. ‘People do things in war for two reasons,’ we’re also told: ‘either out of duty and loyalty, or to survive. One is not better than the other.’

Through the lens of friendship and romance, cleverly mirrored in both timelines of the novel, Manning traces the way war smashes and transforms identity and truth, and explores a question relevant to so many Australians from immigrant and culturally mixed backgrounds today: where do I come from really?

Along every path this question takes us, Manning’s delight in description of place brings the story to life, her prose crisp and uncluttered – from arriving in glamorous Shanghai in 1939:

… the lobby echoed and filled with words of every language as women in fur coats, their servants pulling trunks big enough to fit a bathtub, clicked across the marble in their high heels. Men greeted each other with firm handshakes before retiring to the cigar lounge.

… to exploring the Shanghai of the present:

She strolled through the gates to the Chinese Gardens, past a rockery where grasses spilled onto a lovely terrace paved with river stones in alternate hexagons and squares. In the middle stood the mandatory plane tree, and underneath were round concrete tables filled with people playing board games …

There are many delectable descriptions of food included throughout, too, making The Jade Lily a feast for the senses – and making this reader crave everything from spicy Sichuan dishes to babaganoush.

The story is always intriguing, the puzzle pieces of past and present are placed and pulled together with skill, and again in interesting ways, with diary notes, emails and letters fluttering into the tale with perfect timing. Yes, there are some fantastic coincidences and a few central-casting clichés, but these are features of the genre as well – and are part and parcel of what make it so reliably entertaining.

A marvellous time-travelling tour of Shanghai combined with a thoroughly satisfying identity quest of the best ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ variety, The Jade Lily is a fast-paced yet surprisingly soulful read. Lovers of Fiona McIntosh and Natasha Lester will relish this quality escape – one that promises to take you to places you’ve never been before, and will no doubt inspire a few readers to discover more.

Kirsty Manning The Jade Lily Allen & Unwin 2018 PB 456pp $29.99

Kim Kelly is the author of seven novels, including the acclaimed Wild Chicory and The Blue Mile. Her latest novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, was published in April 2018. Find out more about Kim at:

You can buy The Jade Lily from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.