The Box with the Sunflower Clasp
Rachel Meller was never close to her aunt Lisbeth, a cool, unemotional woman with a drawling Viennese-Californian accent, a cigarette in her hand. But when Lisbeth died, she left Rachel an intricately carved Chinese box with a sunflower clasp. Inside the box were photographs, letters and documents that led Rachel to uncover a story she had never known: that of a passionate Jewish teenager growing up in elegant Vienna, who was caught up by war, and forced to flee to Shanghai.
Far from home, in a strange city, Lisbeth and her parents build a new life – a life of small joys and great hardship, surrounded by many others who, like them, have fled Hitler and the Nazis. 1930s Shanghai is a metropolis where the old rules do not apply – a city of fabulous wealth and crushing poverty, where disease is rife, and gangsters rub shoulders with rich emigrés; where summer brings unspeakable heat, and winter is bitterly cold; and where European refugees build community and, maybe, a young woman can find love.
Set against a backdrop of the war in the Far East, The Box with the Sunflower Clasp is a sweeping family memoir that tells the hidden history of the Jews of Shanghai. Rachel Meller writes with elegance and insight as she examines what it means to survive, and what the legacy of displacement and war might mean for the generation that comes afterwards.
Rachel Meller grew up near London, the middle daughter of Austrian Jewish refugees. After studying neurobiology at Sussex, and research into hormones and behaviour at Cambridge, she became a writer in a communication consultancy. The Box with the Sunflower Clasp is her first book.
The Box with the Sunflower Clasp is a transfixingly readable amalgam of memoir and history, which poignantly evokes the pain and loss attendant on a Viennese Jewish woman’s exile in Shanghai during the war. Superbly written and researched, Rachel Meller’s is by no means a conventional account. Into her extraordinary family saga Meller has assimilated elements of detection, travel, biography, moral essay and personal revelation. She has turned the raw material of her life into literature
— Ian Thomson, author of PRIMO LEVI
Rachel Meller sensitively tells the story of her aunt Lisbeth and her parents who arrived in Shanghai from Vienna in March 1940… Fascinating
— Harry Freedman, author of BRITAIN’S JEWS
This meticulously researched family memoir is as full of drama, emotion and feeling as any novel. It explores a little-known corner of history but also the endlessly fascinating subject of close family relationships and how mysterious those we love can sometimes be. I found it completely engrossing
— Adèle Geras, author of FACING THE LIGHT