A world at war.
Can they survive the Shanghai Ghetto?
[ About the Book ]
It is April 1939, and, in Berlin and Vienna, Esther and Kitty face a brutal choice. Flee Europe, or face the ghetto, incarceration, death.
Shanghai … They’ve heard it whispered that Shanghai might offer refuge. And so, on a crowded ocean liner, these women encounter each other for the first time.
Kitty has been lured to the other side of the world with promises of luxury, love and 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 daughter shelter in a house of widows until Aaron, a hot-headed former lover, brings fresh hope of survival.
Then, as the Japanese army enters the fray and violence mounts, the women are thrown together in Shanghai’s most desperate times. Together they must fight a future for the lives that will follow theirs.
[ My Review]
The Lives Before Us is the latest novel from Juliet Conlin and has just been published with Black & White Publishing. It is a great honour to join the blog tour today with my review of this book that invoked such emotions. The characters came alive for me as I travelled across the world with them and followed them into this new and strange environment where their lives would be changed forever.
I had never heard of the Shanghai Ghetto, until now. In the late 1930s, Shanghai was categorized as a free port, allowing access to the country without visa or passport. With the persecution of the Jewish community already a reality, many made the long journey from the port of Genoa to the heaving and overwhelming city of Shanghai in the hope of a better life than the alternative. As the Nazi regime took a foothold in Europe, the choice for many of the Jewish community was exile to this strange land.
Esther and Kitty, both young women in their prime, flee their homes in Berlin and Vienna for a better life, a chance to survive, to live. Esther has her young daughter to care for, following the death of her husband. Leaving her parents behind, her intention is for them to follow her as soon as she establishes herself in Shanghai. Kitty leaves Vienna chasing a dream, with her beau gone ahead of her, setting up their home for when Kitty arrives.
With rumours aplenty that Shanghai is a haven, a place welcoming of the Jewish community, they journey with a sense of optimism about this new life. But after weeks of a treacherous sailing, they are soon faced with a very different reality, on arrival into this strange place.
‘They are squeezed onto a bus to be taken to a heim, one of the refugee camps set up by the Shanghai Jewish community……They ride along a wide street before turning into a maze of smaller roads, the bus grinding it’s way through traffic, past open-fronted houses, women openly nursing their babies, beggars squatting on the pavements; past Chinese coolies, calling out “ay-ho, hah-ho”, carrying long bamboo stocks across their shoulders with cargo so heavy it threatens to snap the sticks in two. They drive past skeletons of houses, destroyed buildings, ruins from a war most Europeans have never heard of. And a thousand different smells mingling, some unexpectedly pleasant, and others – most others – stomach turning’
Esther and Kitty start their journeys in Shanghai on two very different paths. We witness the horrors they both face as they try to navigate this extraordinary place, with a culture so different to their own. Adding to the increasing challenges they both face, is the arrival of the Japanese military, who invoke a much stricter regime for the Jewish community, with the formation of a restricted section for ‘Stateless Refugees’. Known as the ‘Shanghai Ghetto’, it was a compact area in the Hongkew district of Japanese-occupied Shanghai and it became home to the Jewish community, until 1945.
The Lives Before Us is a novel that was inspired by real-life testimonials, diaries, essays and Juliet Conlin’s interviews with survivors of the time. Described as ‘a story of survival, community, exile and friendship’, it brings the reader on an extraordinary voyage into the lives of these brave and remarkable people. Esther and Kitty may be fictional characters but their arrival in Shanghai from Genoa and the years that followed are all loosely based around fact.
‘The Jewish refugees encountered an almost unbearable climate, desperate living conditions, shocking crime, a fierce battle for limited resources and an overpopulated city. Survival was only possible through ingenuity, industriousness, solidarity and – perhaps most importantly – hope.’
– Author’s Note
Juliet Conlin brings alive the potent scent and smells of Shanghai, the poverty of both the local community and that of the immigrants, with a vivid narrative that is exceptionally powerful and heart-wrenching, compelling and fascinating.
The Lives Before Us is such an important book, highlighting a period in our history that we must never forget, a book I highly recommend!
[ Bio ]
Juliet Conlin was born in London and grew up in England and Germany. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and a PhD in Psychology from the University of Durham. She works as a writer and translator and lives with her husband and four children in Berlin.
Her novels include The Fractured Man and The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days. The Lives Before Us was just published on 28th March 2019.
Website ~ https://www.julietconlin.com