Getting Shanghaied

The Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla (Forge Books; 464 pages; $26.99).

 

            Warfare can ravage the places we call home to such an extent that our surroundings become almost unrecognizable to us.  Conflict can destroy the very places and people we hold most dear.  Combat can also tear families asunder, yet armed confrontations should never threaten our way of life or break our spirit.  In Daniel Kalla’s novel The Far Side of the Sky, hope never dies, even in the very darkest of hours.

The concepts of home and of places are palpable in Kalla’s story.  Yet the author takes it even further by exploring the loss and longing war unexpectedly brings.  Relocation means a new home must be found.

 

That isn’t always easy, as Kalla demonstrates when he focuses on two war-torn cities: Vienna and Shanghai.  Throughout his tale, Kalla’s fully-realized characters manage to keep hope alive, even in the face of certain death.  He gives his individuals a kind of courage we should all strive to have in less than ideal circumstances.

 

Kalla shifts his narrative between two outsiders: Franz Adler and Mah Soon Yi (Sunny).  At first, the two protagonists are worlds apart, both literally and figuratively.  Their meeting, friendship, and ultimate romance feel somehow destined and inevitable.  In less capable hands, the story might easily grow tedious and dull; however, Kalla’s mastery allows him to create an intriguing, tension-filled story.

In fact, this tale so captivated me that I devoured the story in one sitting.  In a sense, The Far Side of the Sky “shanghaied” me.  Nothing could tear me away from the troubled times, places, and people Kalla creates.  Shanghai, especially, comes alive in his story.  No history book could portray the climate better.  Kalla’s characters also persuaded me to continue reading.

 

Franz, a non-practicing Jew, lives with his daughter in Vienna in 1938.  The Nazis recently dismissed him from his renowned position as surgeon at a hospital in the city.  Kristallnacht (the night of crystal), the Nazis murder his brother.  Franz knows he must flee.  He is especially worried about his daughter, Hannah, who has cerebral palsy.  He can only imagine the horrible atrocities the Nazis would inflict upon her, both handicapped and Jewish.  Hannah, ironically, does not “even know how to be Jewish.”  Franz arranges to secure passage to Shanghai for himself, his daughter, and his sister-in-law, Esther.

 

Shanghai is a different world entirely and the place where many other Jews are seeking asylum.  Kalla is at his best when he describes Shanghai, a city many foreigners call home.  Inside this city French people, Chinese people, British people, Jewish people, and Japanese people all live.  Japanese soldiers invaded China in the 1930s, and the situation is precarious but Franz feels it is better in Shanghai than Vienna.  His beliefs are put to the test, though, once the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and Hitler and the Japanese grow cozier than ever.

 

In Shanghai, Franz meets Sunny.  Sunny, in her own eyes, is a “perpetual outsider” since her father is Chinese and her mother is American.  All her life, she has been the subject of bigotry.  Sunny volunteers at a Jewish hospital and there she meets Franz.  Since they are both outcasts, they are drawn to each other.  Kalla, of course, puts many obstacles in the couple’s way that both must overcome.

 

Kalla peoples his novel with many historical figures and events.  The author does employ literary license with some characters as he molds their actions and words to fit his needs.  At times, everything feels so real that I believe everything Kalla writes.  He has the ability of putting a spell on the reader.

 

I was particularly enthralled by a few of Kalla’s peripheral characters.  But I think Kalla has the most fun with Franz’s artist friend, Ernst.  Ernst is flamboyant and often speaks before he thinks.  Sunny’s friend, Jia-Li, is also an intriguing character.  Strong secondary characters like these allow Kalla to create a number of interesting sub-plots.

 

Somehow Kalla’s story appealed to all five of my senses.  Shanghai is the place that allows him to do this.  His emotional, vivid story brings the city to life.  The Far Side of the Sky will appeal to fans of Sarah’s Key (Tatiana de Rosnay), The Baker’s Daughter (Sarah McCoy), Shanghai Girls (Lisa See), and The Piano Teacher (Janice Y.K. Lee).

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Filed under book review, books, fiction

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