Friday, May 10, 2019

The Other Front

As I’ve mentioned a few times over the past year, World War II is having its “moment” in terms of historical novels. Admittedly, as the number of shows on the History Channel and nonfiction works attests, World War II has never failed to attract interest from either scholars or the general public. But in the first five years of my podcast, I rarely received pitches for books set during the war. These days, it seems to be the background for every other book that heads my way.

Now, admittedly, I’ve loved some of the books: Gwen Katz’s Among the Red Stars and Kate Quinn’s The Huntress, in particular—both of which explore the lives of the Soviet women pilots who fought so effectively from their flimsy biplanes that their enemies called them the “Night Witches.” Many other authors have also found new and surprising takes on this well-worn subject. Almost without exception, though, the WWII novels that crossed my desk in the last fifteen months or so have focused on the European side of the conflict.


Not so the two I’m chatting about today. Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared (Hanover Square Press, 2019) and Kirsty Manning’s The Song of the Jade Lily (William Morrow, 2019) have little in common except a dual-time framework in which a young person searches for hidden information about what happened to his/her family during the war and a release date this month. But both explore the war on the Pacific Front and how it affected women who became caught up in the dangers of living in occupied territory.

Much of How We Disappeared takes place in Singapore, not a location we in the United States often think about in terms of WWII, between 1941 and 1945. This part of the story follows the life of Wang Di, eldest daughter of a Chinese family that emigrated to escape poverty and whose homeland has since fallen under Japanese control. Her name means “Hope for a Brother,” a constant reminder that she can never equal in importance the sons her parents eventually produce. Even so, her family protects her from the invading Japanese army, first by trying to arrange a marriage for her and later by keeping her within the confines of their house, until one drastic mistake leads to Wang Di’s capture. A seventeen-year-old virgin, she is loaded onto a truck, carted away to a house, and forced into service as a “comfort woman.” From then until the end of the war, Wang Di never knows whether she will survive the night, or whether she wants to.

This harrowing tale is interwoven with a second story from 2012, in which Kevin, aged twelve, learns of a secret from his dying grandmother. In this more contemporary thread, we also see Wang Di in old age. She has a secret of her own to unravel: where her recently deceased husband went every year on February 12. Her secret and Kevin’s are connected—by the personality of Wang Di, of course, but also by the immediate and long-term effects of occupation by a hostile power.


The Song of the Jade Lily, in contrast, takes place mostly in Shanghai. A twenties-something financial whiz named Alexandra accepts a job there, in part to get away from a disintegrating relationship with her boyfriend. Alexandra, of Chinese descent, grew up in the care of her Jewish grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm. After Wilhelm’s death, Alexandra moves to Shanghai, where she makes use of the opportunity thus offered to solve the mystery of her mother’s past and therefore her own. But we readers watch the story unfold from 1938 through 1954, interspersed with moments when Alexandra searches for or stumbles over one truth or another.

Because I was a friend of the writer Annabel Liu, who lived in Shanghai as a child, I knew in general about the Japanese occupation of the city and the suffering inflicted on the local population. What I didn’t know was that right before and during the war Shanghai was one of the few places that freely accepted Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Europe. Romy and her fictional family are among these refugees.

Not long after the novel opens, Romy loses one brother to murder during Vienna’s version of Kristallnacht and another to the concentration camp at Dachau, although the family members have no idea what conditions in the camp are like and continue to hope that the second son can join them. Meanwhile, they settle into their new home, making friends with Dr. Ho and his two children, Li and Jian—all of whom will play vital roles in Romy’s life.

Here too, the invasion of the Japanese Army threatens to upset the refugees’ hopes for a better future. Romy’s father, a doctor, manages to remain in practice, although as the war drags on, he finds it ever more difficult to secure the medical supplies his patients need. Romy’s fate is kinder than Wang Di’s: she pursues an education and acquires training in both Western and traditional Chinese medicine. Even so, the tendrils of war are everywhere, and they entangle her friends Li and Jian, as well as another friend—Nina, also a refugee—in ways that sweep Romy, too, into the web of power and its abuses.

To say more about either novel would give too much away. Both are well thought through, interesting, nicely written, and innovative in the sense that they look beyond the European theater and recognize that the horrors of World War II didn’t stop at Paris, London, or Stalingrad. Personally, I preferred Song of the Jade Lily, in part because what happens to Wang Di in How We Disappeared—although wholly supported by the historical evidence—is so wrenching and heart-breaking that the problems addressed in the contemporary story pale by comparison. It’s not that the problems are small in themselves—on the contrary. But they can’t quite measure up to the complete dehumanization inflicted on the innocent Wang Di. It might, in the end, have worked better to let her story stand alone. In that sense, the two halves of Jade Lily achieve a better balance.

Your reaction, however, may be just the opposite. Certainly you can’t go wrong with either of these books. If nothing else, you will discover a side of World War II that you may not have imagined. And that’s always a good thing, right?

My thanks to Shara Alexander and Maria Silva, the publicists who sent me copies of these novels with no obligation on me to post a review. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And as I’ve mentioned before, if you have been my friend on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), that will be the main venue for my writing-related posts going forward. I’ve deactivated my Catriona Lesley account, so if you search for it, you will not see my profile. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and @NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

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