The Lives Before Us – Juliet Conlin (Peter)
The Lives Before Us is an accomplished, poignant and fiercely compelling story. A story steeped in history but personalised through the characterisation and life of 3 main characters, Esther, Kitty and Yì. Juliet Conlin has written a story conveying a sense of constant upheaval and a struggle to survive, during one of the World’s darkest periods. When hopes and expectations would remain dreams and a harrowing life was all that awaited the victims of a World at war.
In April 1939, 5 months before the outbreak of the Second World War, Esther Niermann, a young widow, along with her daughter Anneliese (Anni), leave Berlin for Genoa to board a ship to Shanghai. Shanghai is a free port and one of the few places that Esther, as a Jew, can immigrate to. From the mid-1930s Jews who were aware of the anti-Semitic policy of Nazi Germany and had the finances to respond, started to leave their homes for apparent safe havens. Shanghai was a major destination for many German Jews.
Joining Esther on the ship from Genoa, is another lady, Kitty Blume. Kitty is a non-practising Jew and as such didn’t register as a Jew back in Germany. She is going to Shanghai to meet her fiancé, Vitali and get married. Esther, Anni and Kitty share a cabin, such are the huge passenger numbers, and while they initially avoid each other they eventually establish an intimate connection in the last few days of the journey. Esther and Kitty are very different characters, different ambitions and different behaviours. In the confusion and rush to disembark they lose touch with each other and don’t get a chance to say goodbye. Many years later destiny will bring them back together – but under what circumstances?
Kitty meets up with her fiancé, to find that he is already married but he puts her up in a flat with a young Chinese servant Yì and provides for all her needs. Kitty treats the boy with a level of kindness that he isn’t used to, which contrasts to how badly Vitali treats him. Yì has personal family concerns and we get a wonderful insight into the poverty faced by the Chinese population living under Japanese control. The Chinese existence in their own city is harsh and pitiful and is very well portrayed. This current lifestyle will be blown apart and the fallout will be disastrous for Kitty and Yì.
The story is told in the third person and alternates between the 3 main characters, giving an amazing array of issues, places and personalities as they each face totally different challenges yet are tied together by history and fate. Juliet vividly brings Shanghai to life with her wonderful prose, especially the Shanghai Ghetto, or more formally known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees. We see the different character perspectives and Juliet facilitates the reader with a lens on history that does the remarkable job of enabling us to live amongst it in our imagination. The pace and structure of the novel are perfect and Juliet often uses that powerful last line of a chapter to hook you immediately into the next.
The Lives Before Us is first and foremost a story about 2 women and a boy who experienced a city during very tumultuous times, where starvation, poverty, brutality, hardships, relationships, love, kindness and community interact every day. The story displays despair, inspires hope and will break your heart before it ends – a wonderful achievement in weaving history, humanity and storytelling into a dramatic novel.
I read The Lives Before Us as a Buddy Read with my great friend, Beata. Many thanks for her contribution and insight while we read this together. Beata made this such an enjoyable experience, which is another reason I love this book. I would highly recommend this book and I would like to thank Black & White Publishing and Juliet Conlin for providing me with an ARC version in return for an honest review.