It’s April 1939 and, with their lives in Berlin and Vienna under threat, Esther and Kitty – two very different women – are forced to make the same brutal choice. Flee Europe, or face the ghetto, incarceration, death.
Shanghai, they’ve heard, Shanghai is a haven – and so they secure passage to the other side of the world. What they find is a city of extremes – wealth, poverty, decadence and disease – and of deep political instability. Kitty has been lured there with promises of luxury, love, marriage – but when her Russian fiancé reveals his hand she’s left to scratch a vulnerable living in Shanghai’s nightclubs and dark corners. Meanwhile, Esther and her little girl take shelter in a house of widows until the protection of Aaron, Esther’s hot-headed former lover, offers new hope of survival.
Then the Japanese military enters the fray and violence mounts. As Kitty’s dreams of escape are dashed, and Esther’s relationship becomes tainted, the two women are thrown together in the city’s most desperate times. Together they must fight for a future for the lives that will follow theirs.
I knew that I would fall in love with this book as soon as I had read the first few pages and I sat about for a long while once it was over, wondering how on earth my review could do this book justice. This is historical fiction at its very best; a moving journey with two strong and brave yet strikingly different women at its heart, entwined with the life of a young boy from Shanghai. Whilst reading, my senses were assaulted by a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells; I really felt as if I was positioned right in the centre of the Shanghai Ghetto; inhaling its squalor and destitution as an onlooker standing at a window over Kitty, Esther and Wing.
I found my heart breaking for both Esther and Kitty in very different ways; it seemed that they were both bombarded with setback after setback and every time they managed to overcome the challenges hurled at them, they would be dealt yet another crushing blow. The enduring tenacity and the strength of these two women, who were entirely alone, combined with the kindness of those who let them into their lives, often with less than little to give, left me feeling both a sadness and a happiness at the sense of camaraderie which emerged from their collective struggle in the toughest of times.
For me, this novel was an education in an area of the Second World War of which I have very little knowledge, and on which I have read very little. The rawness of the effect of poverty in the Shanghai Ghetto evoked by Conlin, was for me a shocking revelation. The instability and precariousness of Wing’s entire existence was at best unsettling and at worst truly tragic. I found myself heavily invested in his survival as well as that of Kitty and Esther.
Conlin’s depth of knowledge and expertise on the plights of those affected by the Second World War is obvious throughout the book. I am reliably informed (straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak!) that she embarked upon a veritable quest to perfect this novel, including learning basic mandarin and travelling 5000 miles for research, not to mention personally interviewing Shanghai Ghetto survivors and reading countless history books on the subject.
This is a compelling story of heartbreak, instability and compassion; a beautifully written and captivating tale of survival. Conlin presents a masterclass in historical fiction in what is a sensorially astounding and truly accomplished novel. I shall be talking about this 5* story for a long time.
My thanks go to Black and White publishing for sending me a a proof copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.