In Grade Seven, our classroom had a bookshelf with a small collection of completely random books we could read when we were caught up on our work, or had nothing better to do. I don’t remember what the title was, but there was one book on the shelf about the Battle of Britain, and invariably that’s the one I would read. I must have read it fifty times that year.
At home, we had The World Book Encyclopedia. I don’t know how many hours I spent reading about World War II, the participants, the technology, the weaponry – anything I could find. As a teenager, I started playing war games, paintball, in cadets and finished off with a few years in the Canadian Army Reserves.
All that is to say I have tremendous interest in World War II. So when I bought A Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla entirely based off the title and cover art, I was intrigued when I found out it was set during that historic time. Even more intriguing, it is set in pre- and early war Shanghai among the Jewish refugees that managed to escape the early Nazi persecution and make their way across two continents – a pocket of relative safety I had no idea even existed.
The story starts harshly, but slowly, introducing us to the sufferings of the Viennese Jews in 1938 through Dr. Franz Adler and his family and friends. After a brief respite on an ocean liner, we see how Adler and other European Jews struggle to adapt to the strange world of Shanghai which was then divided and governed by no less than three separate nations and influenced by many more. As the war picks up, challenges mount for Adler and his family both at home and in trying to survive the political situation. This provides a unique glimpse into a very strange, rarely discussed microcosm of World War II and the holocaust.
Also a medical doctor, author Kalla has a clear command of the medical issues that frequently arise in the novel. His knowledge lends an authority to the depictions. The action is tight and easy to follow, and the romantic relationships are predictable but believable.
Where the book struggles, is with its characters.
When we first meet Franz Adler, we find not only is he Jewish and a surgeon, but:
– he is the Chief of Surgery at a University Hospital, and
– a single father whose wife died shortly after childbirth
– his daughter has cerebral palsy
– he has an alchoholic, homosexual best friend who is famous for his avant garde erotic paintings.
Once in Shanghai, we meet Sunny, a 24 year old Eurasian nurse who regularly upstages her boss, a 30 year surgical veteran. And Sunny’s best friend, Jia-Li, is both an opium addict and Shanghai’s preeminent call girl.
This seems a pretty unlikely grouping in prewar Eurasia.
All the main characters mentioned are perfectly likeable, but a bit shallow. While we see them struggle, there’s never any real doubt what decision they’ll make – they are good to a fault.
Most of the villains ring hollow as well. The Nazi’s are all evil butchers, some to the point of caricature. The Japanese are horrific to those they despise, indifferent to everyone else. There is one exception here; one of the senior Japanese officers shows a nuanced view of all the different parties involved, and despite his somewhat limited role, is one of the most interesting people in the book.
Overall, The Far Side of the Sky is an interesting look at a unique, small part of a great big story. It reads quickly and easily. If you have an interest in the war, the holocaust, or even Shanghai, it’s certainly worth a look.