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A Reader of Fictions: Shelcha - Yael Naïm

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Shelcha - Yael Naïm

The Far Side of the Sky

Author: Daniel Kalla
Pages: 460
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Source: Tor/Forge via NetGalley

Description from Goodreads:
On November 9, 1938—Kristallnacht—the Nazis unleash a night of terror across Germany that paves the way for Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Meanwhile, the Japanese Imperial Army continues to rampage through China and tighten its stranglehold on Shanghai, a besieged and divided city that becomes the last haven for thousands of desperate European Jews.

Dr. Franz Adler, an Austrian Jew and renowned surgeon, is swept up in the wave of anti-Semitic violence washing over Vienna and flees to China with his daughter. There, at a Shanghai refugee hospital, Franz meets an enigmatic nurse, Soon Yi “Sunny” Mah. The chemistry between them is intense and immediate, until Sunny’s life is shattered when a drunken Japanese sailor attempts to rape her and murders her father.

The danger escalates for Shanghai’s Jewish refugee community as the Japanese ally themselves militarily with Germany and attack Pearl Harbor. Soon, the Japanese overrun the European enclaves within Shanghai. Facing starvation, disease and the threat of internment—or worse—Franz struggles to keep the refugee hospital open while protecting his own family and fights to outwit the Nazis and save the city’s Jewish community from a terrible fate.

The Far Side of the Sky focuses on a short but extraordinary period of Chinese, Japanese and Jewish Second World War history, where cultures converged and heroic sacrifices were part of the everyday quest for survival.

First Sentence: "The shadow still swayed over the pavement."

Yet again, I find myself seriously impressed with the breadth and variety of WWII historical fiction. I honestly feel like whenever I read a WWII novel, whether I like it or not, I learn something new and fascinating. The Far Side of the Sky is no exception. I never previously knew that thousands of German and Austrian Jews escaped to Shanghai.

The story of these refugees has a double impact, since it allows Kalla to draw connections between the German's treatment of conquered territories and the Japanese treatment. I think this is seriously important for people in America to know. I have witnessed that here in the U.S., our schooling and basic mood towards Germany remains largely negative because of everything that happened in WWII. However, that same stigma definitely does not exist towards Japan or the Soviet Union. While, certainly, there were times where hatred or distrust for those countries eclipsed everything else, I don't think that their crimes have really caught in our consciousness the same way, largely because so much has been written and popularized about Hitler and the Holocaust.

The Far Side of the Sky begins in Austria on Kristallnacht. Franz's brother is brutally murdered by the SS, as are some of his family's neighbors. His brother's wife, Esther, has a huge gash on her arm. Thankfully, Franz is a doctor and can help. The opening is dramatic and makes its point. Franz Adler must get his family (himself, his daughter Hannah, Esther, and, hopefully, his aging father) out of Austria. Practically the only country accepting Jews at this point, fairly early in the war though it was, was China. The only reason China was open was because China really didn't have much of a say in anything at this point.

Through sheer luck and connections, Franz and his family escape to Shanghai. Though better, tensions in Shanghai are also running very high. Shanghai is inundated with foreigners, all in an uneasy truce and all ruling over the Chinese. The Japanese, however, are the ones really calling the shots, in their bid to take over the world from the east as Hitler moved from the west. Atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking are covered, although not in detail, quite clearly.

I found the writing style a bit awkward in the beginning, although I suspect that some of that will be fixed in the final version. Kalla seemed a bit unsure whether he should have his characters use German at all or whether he should just write in English. While I see the temptation to use the actual language, switching to English for the bulk of the conversation is more awkward. The reader can figure out that they would probably be speaking in German.

The characters are just great, which, as you all know, is the most important aspect of a book to me pretty much every time. I especially loved Sunny, a half-white, half-Chinese nurse in Shanghai. She's so incredibly intelligent and brave. Powerful women ftw! I was so caught up in their story by the end, and so desperate for things to turn out well for them.

If, like me, you can't get enough WWII fiction, I would definitely recommend searching out The Far Side of the Sky.

Rating: 4/5

Favorite Quote: "Simon shook his head. ‘The Nazis in Germany…the Japanese here in Shanghai…Treating people as less than human because of the shape of their faces or the sound of their names. Sometimes it feels like the whole damn world is unraveling.’"

"Too many screams in my throat
Too many faces
Too many plans
that I wanted to change
So many words
If I can only tell you
There's no other love
But the one I live with you

Still don't know how

We let all this happen
Will this war last forever and ever?
They've burned my hands
Cut my hair and steal my soul
But do you really want to know?

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