Friday, 8 March 2019

500 words from Juliet Conlin

500 words from…is an occasional series in which novelists talk about their latest novels.

Juliet Conlin’s third novel, The Lives Before Us, is published on March 28. Juliet was born in London and now lives in Berlin. Her earlier novels were The Fractured Man and The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days. 

The Lives Before Us is set in 1940’s Shanghai. It explores a little-known aspect of the Holocaust and the Jewish diaspora in one of Asia’s most legendary cities, and addresses the struggles surrounding forced emigration, displacement and identity, through the story of two Jewish women, Esther and Kitty.

Esther and Kitty flee Nazi Europe for the relative safety of Shanghai. But instead of finding the safe haven they had hoped for, they encounter desperate living conditions, an almost unbearable climate, shocking crime, and a fierce battle for limited resources. Then, when Japan enters the fray of the Second World War, and violence mounts, Kitty and Esther – along with thousands of other Jewish refugees – are forced into a Japanese-controlled ghetto.

So, over to Juliet...

“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.”

Such is the description of the city through the eyes of Anneliese, the young daughter of one of my protagonists in The Lives Before Us. The novel is set against the backdrop of 1940’s Shanghai, and tells the story of two Jewish women, Esther and Kitty, who flee Nazi Europe for the relative safety of Shanghai. On the eve of the Second World War, Shanghai was one of the world’s only free ports, where no entrance visa was necessary, and between 1939 and 1941, an estimated twenty thousand Jews fled here from Nazi Europe. The book is about the challenges my characters face as refugees, their friendship, and what it means to be a survivor.

When I first read about the existence of a Jewish ghetto in 1940s Shanghai, it immediately set my imagination humming – not only is this ghetto a little-known aspect of wartime history, but the city of Shanghai, in all its decadent glory, represents the kind of dramatic canvas a writer longs for. It has a legendary reputation as one of the most fascinating, volatile and depraved cities in the world, making for an unforgettable setting for any novel. Here, thousands of miles from home, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe encountered an almost unbearable climate, desperate living conditions, shocking crime, and a fierce battle for limited resources amid a never-ending human tide.

But as a writer, I’m interested in more than just a simple reconstruction of history and presentation of historical facts. In The Lives Before Us, I was looking to bring an old world to life, to take the reader on a journey along the shifting fortunes of the central characters, Esther, Kitty and Wing, all of whom were inspired by the stories of real people, and are instantly relatable to readers on a personal level. This is arguably the added appeal of historical fiction over historical fact: it can reach into the personal, the immediate, into our very lives.

Fiction enables a writer to capture something essential, not only about the setting and the times, but also about universal and contemporary experiences, offering a uniquely different perspective on the present by creating a new but recognisable version of the past. The Lives Before Us was inspired by real-life testimonials, diaries, essays, and my interviews with survivors of the Shanghai Ghetto. I was immensely moved by these accounts and immediately inspired to create a memorable story in which survival was possible only through ingenuity, industriousness, solidarity and hope. As such, I felt the responsibility keenly: to create my characters’ truths, their personalities, passions and relationships as these unfold against the catastrophic trauma of the Second World War.

Details: The Lives Before Us will be published on March 28, 2019, by Black & White Publishing, in paperback and eBook. Priced in local currencies.