Of all the books I've read so far this year, this one is among the best. With real, compelling characters and the city of Shanghai itself as center stage, I fairly raced through the last hundred pages.
The story begins in Vienna in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht in November 1938. Widespread attacks on Jewish synagogues and property throughout the Reich have made the situation for German and Austrian Jews --- already tenuous --- even more desperate. A widowed Viennese doctor and former Head of Surgery at one of the city's premiere hospitals --- Franz Adler --- is forced to leave the city with his daughter and sister-in-law (whose husband was murdered by the Nazis) and flee to Shanghai, one of the few places on earth offering sanctuary to Jews. The author makes Shanghai vividly come to life in this novel. At the time of the Adler's arrival, it is a large city overflowing with all kinds of people that is demarcated into a military zone among the Japanese, British, and American forces. Imagine a city with the charm and characteristics of Monte Carlo and New York but also with the stark poverty of Calcutta, and you'll have a good sense of what Shanghai was like in the late 1930s.
While Franz struggles to make a life for himself, his daughter and sister-in-law through his work at a refugee hospital and the Country Hospital, he makes the acquaintance of a half Chinese-half American nurse named Soon Yi "Sunny" Mah. The author shows a deft hand in revealing to the reader how the lives of the Adlers and that of "Sunny", her family and friends become increasingly bound together in Shanghai as the Second World War makes itself felt there. (I won't give too much away, except to say that there is a blossoming love story in these pages that will pull at one's heartstrings.)
This is a novel in which a reader can completely lose him/herself because it is so well-written and engaging. Before reading "The Far Side of the Sky", I had no idea that upwards of 20,000 Jews from prewar Europe had managed to find sanctuary there. Nor that there was a rich and diverse Jewish presence in Shanghai that went back to the 19th century. Eagerly, I await the publication of the paperback edition of the equel, "Rising Sun, Falling Shadow."