“Ah, but the artist in me cannot help but admire their sense of aesthetics. They truly excel at making ugly things look and sound pretty, don’t they? Have you heard what they’re calling last night’s rampage?” Franz said nothing, but Ernst, who was accustomed to carrying on one-sided conversations, continued. “Kristallnacht. Isn’t that lovely? — ‘the night of crystal.’” He grunted again. “Only the Nazis could make a night of national disgrace and hateful violence sound like an opera that Mozart might have penned!”
(from The Far Side of the Sky, page 22 in the advanced uncorrected proof; finished version may be different)
Daniel Kalla’s latest novel, The Far Side of the Sky, is historical fiction at its best. I can’t resist World War II novels that teach me something new, and Kalla did just that, focusing on the German Jews who fled Europe to escape the escalating Nazi violence and settled in Shanghai, which was pretty much the only place that would accept them at that point. Shanghai is a city of excitement and a city of fear, a city rampant with crime, prostitution, and opium addiction. The city is home to people of various nationalities, a melting pot of sorts, and the Japanese presence casts a shadow over everything.
After Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, Franz Adler, a secular Jewish surgeon in Vienna, realizes he and his family are no longer welcome in the city he has called home all of his life. On that night of chaos and violence, Franz sees his brother’s body hanging from a lamppost, and he understands that he must get his family out — and fast, since the sinister Adolf Eichmann, in charge of stamping Jewish exit visas, gives him just a matter of days to leave the country or he will be sent to a prison camp. He manages to secure a spot on a luxury liner from Italy to Shanghai, and Franz, his eight-year-old disabled daughter, Hannah, his grieving sister-in-law, Esther, and their friend, Ernst, a gay artist whose work and lifestyle were deemed degenerate by the Nazis, prepare to start new lives in a land they know nothing about, merely hoping that they will finally be safe.
Meanwhile, Sunny Mah, the daughter of a Chinese doctor and an American missionary, struggles to get by in Shanghai, where people of mixed race are not received favorably. Sunny has to bow lower and longer to the Japanese before crossing into their section of the city, and she has the intelligence to be a doctor, but the head surgeon at the hospital where she works refuses to acknowledge her potential. She learns that a hospital for the Jewish refugees is being built, and she volunteers her time and expertise, soon becoming an important member of the staff.
It is at the refugee hospital that she meets Franz, and even though they have passionate feelings for one another, obligation and the war conspire to keep them apart. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and seize all of Shanghai, things get worse for everyone living in the city — especially the refugees, as the organizations in England and the United States that provide food and shelter can no longer funnel money into the city.
The Far Side of the Sky is an exciting and beautifully written story about a city and people in turmoil. There is a lot going on in this novel, and Kalla does a wonderful job balancing and connecting all of the plot threads, including the plight of the Jews in Vienna and the Chinese under Japanese rule, the ethical dilemmas that threaten Franz’s career and the fate of his family, the convergence of numerous cultures in one city, the starvation and disease that ran rampant, and the sadness of the people who escaped the Nazis realizing that they probably would never see the relatives they left behind ever again. Kalla’s descriptions of Shanghai made the city come alive, and I could see the chaos, smell the stifling odors and the exotic aromas, and feel deeply for each of the characters, all of whom felt so real to me.
The Far Side of the Sky is a novel about so many things, and while it boils down to a story about survival and love in the midst of war, such a simple statement doesn’t do this book justice. It’s also about sacrifice, obligation, and making the most of the worst circumstances. It’s about people forced to leave behind everything and everyone they know and love and start anew in a land with new dangers waiting for them just around the corner. Moreover, it’s another book likely to make my list of best books read this year.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.