Book Review: The Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla

the-far-side-of-the-skyThe Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla

Book Review by Ian Shone

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Forge Books; First Edition edition (June 5, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0765332337
  • ISBN-13: 978-0765332332

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Coming off the last book reviewed for Alt Hist (Rebecca Cantrell’s A Game of Lies) there seems to be a certain accidental continuity with this book, which deals with a Jewish doctor’s flight from Vienna to Shanghai in the wake of the Anschluss. It’s another tense but sober story of life under the shadow of Nazism, tastefully and sincerely written, and it benefits from a similar consistency of pacing.

There is a lot to like about The Far Side of the Sky, especially in its focus on the human struggle in the face of an inhuman and seemingly unstoppable system. Daniel Kalla succeeds in conjuring up the same feeling of dread and hopelessness found in Schindler’s List and works of that sort. The ambitious breadth of its scope, taking in both the horrors of the Third Reich and the barbarism of the Japanese in China, is especially effective. In certain sections it calls to mind Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but with a lightness of touch and swiftness of pace that makes it that little bit more accessible to the casual reader.

Unfortunately, it does stall in a few places, and perhaps severely enough to put a reader off entirely. The dialogue is a serious problem; it’s stiff and awkward throughout, and downright dreadful in parts. It’s a real shame, because some of the characters are well-drawn, and the reader does come to care about them. But as soon as they open their mouths the illusion is shattered, because they simply don’t speak like real people. The worst example is probably the appearance of Adolf Eichmann, who is reduced to a kind of hand-rubbing Bond villain. Robbing the antagonists of their complexity only detracts from the true horror of what took place, which undoubtedly runs against what the author is trying to achieve.

Another problem is a didactic tendency that creeps into the novel, especially when the action moves to China. Kalla has obviously done a great job in researching his subject matter, particularly with regard to the Chinese language. But is it necessary for each idiom and expression to be individually translated and explained? It’s very interesting, of course, but it does get in the way, and I can’t help thinking the novel would have been better off without it.

That said, it is a pretty good story, and the author’s approach to it is clearly an honest and heartfelt one. Overall, a flawed but interesting novel.

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