I am honoured to be kicking off the blogtour for Juliet Conlin’s The Lives Before Us.I read and loved her debut novel The Uncommon Life of Aldred Warner in Six Days when I read that a couple of years ago. You can read my review here: Alfred Warner. It was such a cleverly told story. So I had high hopes for her new novel and I wasn’t disappointed.
The Lives Before Us is the story of Kitty and Esther, Jewish women fleeing Vienna and Berlin as World War 2 threatens and they face being sent to live in ghettos or worse. Shanghai is one of the few places which still accepts refugees at this point and the women meet when they share a cabin on board the boat there. Esther is a widow, seeking sanctuary for herself and her young daughter Anni. Kitty is travelling to join her wealthy, Russian fiancee Vitali who has promised a life of luxury. However, life in Shanghai turns out to be very different from what either of them expected.
I was fascinated by the historical background to this book. I have read a lot of fiction set in the Second World War but was wholly unaware of this episode of history and had no idea that many Jewish refugees from Europe travelled to Shanghai. I also had never heard of the ghettos in Shanghai. So this is a book I learned a lot from which is always a bonus to me when I read.
Juliet Conlin writes so vividly about her characters’ surroundings and experiences. Her descriptions of the women’s time on the boat to Shanghai seemed so real that I almost felt seasick myself. Her portrayal of the heat, the dust, the noise, the bustle and the smells of Shanghai leaps off the page, such was the clear image created by her words.
There is a journey for both women throughout this book both literal and metaphorical. Wherever they went, the Jewish refugees were an underclass. Ghetto life was clearly such a struggle. Everything seemed to conspire against Esther. Just when things seemed to go right for her and Anni, something always happened to dash her hopes. Kitty, was not initially such a likeable character seeming somewhat frivolous. She thought she was going to a better life but cruelly deceived by lover and like many people, found herself at a real low point, doing what she had to to survive. A third character is this book is Kitty’s servant and loyal friend, young Wing. I don’t want to say too much about him but he was a brilliant character and a lifesaver in so many ways.
The Lives Before Us shows the human capacity for resilience, strength and courage at life’s lowest points. It is a compelling and deeply moving read. Though there is despair and desperation, there is also hope and compassion. Juliet Conlin has blended dark history beautifully into the novel and created a remarkable and unforgettable story.
My thanks to Alastair Chivers from Black and White Publishing for inviting me to take part in the blogtour and for my beautiful review copy of the book. The Lives Before Us is available now in paperback and as an ebook. You should be able to buy or order a copy from your usual book retailer or order a copy from the publishers website here. If you prefer a Kindle copy, you can buy one here.
From the back of the book
“I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of it. Even my vivid imagination could hardly fathom a place as tight, or dense, or narrow as Shanghai.”
It’s April 1939 and, with their lives in Berlin and Vienna under threat, Esther and Kitty – two very different women – are forced to make the same brutal choice. Flee Europe, or face the ghetto, incarceration, death.
Shanghai, they’ve heard, Shanghai is a haven – and so they secure passage to the other side of the world. What they find is a city of extremes – wealth, poverty, decadence and disease – and of deep political instability. Kitty has been lured there with promises of luxury, love, 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 little girl take shelter in a house of widows until the protection of Aaron, Esther’s hot-headed former lover, offers new hope of survival.
Then the Japanese military enters the fray and violence mounts. As Kitty’s dreams of escape are dashed, and Esther’s relationship becomes tainted, the two women are thrown together in the city’s most desperate times. Together they must fight for a future for the lives that will follow theirs.
A sweeping story of survival, community and friendship in defiance of the worst threat to humanity the world has ever faced.
About the author
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. She writes in both English and German. Her novels include ‘The Fractured Man’ (Cargo, 2013) and ‘The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days’ (Black & White Publishing, 2017). Her third novel, ‘The Lives Before Us’, will be published in March 2019 (Black and White Publishing). Subscribe to Juliet’s newsletter, NOTES FROM BERLIN, http://www.julietconlin.com/notes-from-berlin.
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