In answer to the question "What engages readers?" Daniel Kalla has said, "It has to be character. I don't think it's language. … It can be a brilliant plot, but if you have just no interest, and the characters aren't real, and you can't relate to them, you don't really care."
In The Far Side of the Sky, Kalla seems, once again, to have taken his own advice to heart and made a strenuous effort to create sympathetic and credible characters. He has almost succeeded. Dr. Franz Adler and his Austrian Jewish family seem sympathetic enough and real enough that this reader was keen to find out what happens to them, even when background summaries clutter up the otherwise fast-moving narrative.
Kalla, who practises emergency medicine when not writing novels, has had plenty of experience with medical interventions and fast-moving plots in his six previously published thrillers. The Far Side of the Sky makes use of both devices and does so realistically enough to sweep the reader along for the ride.
The problems emerge when he comes to the vast canvas of history he has chosen as the backdrop to his love story. He has to deal with the horrific realities of Hitler's rise to power in Germany, the Anschluss and the enthusiastic reception of Nazism in Austria, the murderous regime that encouraged the outrages of the November, 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when many of Vienna's Jews were humiliated, beaten and killed by enraged mobs. He has to present the circumstances of the forced emigration of Jews minus their property. And that's just in the first third of the book.
Kalla chose to cram much of the background into chunks of explanations, but we get through it only to be bogged down again once the remnants of the once-prosperous Adler family head for Shanghai. Shanghai was one of the very few places in the world that accepted Jewish refugees.
Now, Kalla is faced with the daunting task of providing background on how Shanghai became the strange anomaly of international quarters, the Opium War, the Japanese invasion of China and the massacre of Nanking, just so he can tell a part of his tale from the point of view of a courageous young half-Chinese woman who will, inevitably, fall in love with Franz Adler.
He had my sympathy. I mean the author.
In order to keep the dramatic tale at a boil, he even transports Adolf Eichmann to Shanghai, so he can, once again, bring him face to face with the seemingly unflappable (his heart, I am sure, is thumping, but he wouldn't show it) Dr. Adler.
By this time, I was willing to discard disbelief, just so as to send Adler and his beloved Sunny (despite his effort to give her life, she often slips off the page) to some (any) safe place, but deep down I feared for them, knowing what happened in Shanghai, even as I kept tripping over those troublesome chunks of research, as well as the too many hurried sentences that don't quite work (such as, "His thoughts weighing heavily, Franz hurried home"). Language does, after all, matter, even in a big-canvas story with some very well-drawn characters.
Daniel Kalla does explain in an author's note why he chose to bring Eichmann to Shanghai, and how he used real people to mix with his invented characters, but the plot has trouble absorbing all this, even over more than 400 pages.
Anna Porter's most recent books are The Ghosts of Europe and Kasztner's Train.