I’ve been waiting for this book review for such a long time. I had the pleasure a couple of years ago of attending the book launch of The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days. During that launch, Juliet Conlin mentioned her next book, which was to be set in Shanghai. I was lucky enough to be asked to join the tour of said book and believe me, it was worth the wait.
The Lives Before Us* by Juliet Conlin begins in 1939 with Esther in Berlin and Kitty in Vienna. Both women are set to board an overcrowded ocean liner set for Shanghai, in order to escape the prosecution of the Jewish people. After arriving in dirty Shanghai, they realise it is not the refuge promised. Esther was lured to the city by her Russian fiancee but when he begins to get violent and eventually turns her out, Kitty finds herself turning to Shanghai’s dark corner to try to make a living. Esther and her young daughter are living in a house with widows until her hot-headed ex-boyfriend, Aaron, offers fresh hope. On top of all that, violence begins to mount in the form of the Japanese audience.
I’m going to start with a point that probably nobody will get excited about except me. Esther and her parents lived on Wittelsbacher Str. in Berlin – and so did I! Just a small thing like that immediately connected me to the story and I was sucked in from there on.
I’ve read a lot of WWII books set in England. My favourite aspect of these books is how people bond to get themselves through a hard time. I especially love the female friendships that come from these struggles. I found the exact same with The Lives Before Us and was really invested in what would come of the friendship between Esther and Kitty.
I know some people might turn their noses up at another WWII book but this book doesn’t follow the same formula. I think a big reason for this was the setting in Shanghai. Admittedly, I knew nothing about Shanghai offering refuge for Jews during the war, and I knew next to nothing about the invasion of the Japanese, so The Lives Before Us opened up a whole new world to me.
Now don’t get me wrong, because Shanghai was supposed to be some kind of refuge doesn’t mean that this book was any less dark than a WWII story based in mainland Europe. The struggle people went through to have a fighting chance at a better life was heartbreaking. In fact, there was one scene in particular that really got to me. On the liner, there was an elderly couple, the Rosenbaums. They try to sell a watch to Esther and Kitty and the desperation and embarrassment they go through for a little bit of money broke my heart.
In fact, it was the Rosenbaums who brought the most emotion to the book. That is not to say that Esther and Kitty’s stories were any less sad. But Esther was a very strong woman and I had no doubt that she would be able to front anything out. Kitty was another strong women but not a very likable person, at first. She was quite frustrating in the choices that she made.
Finally, I want to touch on how well Juliet Conlin made Shanghai come to life. In my mind, I lived in the city and could clearly see the richest areas down the areas with the most despair. This is done especially well with the inclusion of Wing, Kitty’s errand boy. Through Wing, we see how desperate Shanghai also was for the locals.
Overall, although this was a book about despair and the struggle to survive, it is also very much a book about kindness, love and the power of community. A must read for everyone!
I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.