Friday, March 6, 2015

Review and Guest Post: Shadows Over Paradise by Isabel Wolff

Title: Shadows Over Paradise
Author: Isabel Wolff 
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Bantam
Publish Date: February 10, 2015
Source: I received a copy from the publisher; however, this did not affect my review.

What's the Story?:

From "A childhood mistake. A lifetime of regrets.

Jenni is a 'ghost': she writes the lives of other people. It's a job that suits her well: still haunted by a childhood tragedy, she finds it easier to take refuge in the memories of others rather than dwell on her own.

Jenni has an exciting new commission, and is delighted to start working on the memoirs of a Dutchwoman, Klara. As a child in the Second World War, Klara was interned in a camp on Java during the Japanese occupation – she has an extraordinary story of survival to tell.

But as Jenni and Klara begin to get to know each other, Jenni begins to do much more than shed light on a neglected part of history. She is being forced to examine her own devastating memories, too. But with Klara's help, perhaps this is finally the moment where she will be able to lay the ghosts of her own past to rest?"

My Two Cents:

"Shadows Over Paradise" is the story of two women affected by their pasts. Jenni is a ghostwriter and while she truly enjoys her job, she seems to use it to hide feelings of childhood trauma that are ever present in her mind. She meets Klara, who was in an internment camp in Java during World War II. Klara suffers from her own memories of childhood trauma. Together as they put together Klara's story, Jenni and Klara will both face their past and come to terms with the idea of forgiveness.

This was a very quick read for me. We see flashbacks of Jenni's childhood right away and it helped to set the tone for the book. I really liked how although Klara and Jenni's childhoods were quite different, the author is able to tie them together in a really interesting way. I fell for both of our main characters hard. The author did a great job of bringing the characters to life. I know that these are characters that I will be thinking about for a long time!

As with most time split books, my heart was really a little more into the historical story. The historical detail really helped to bring Klara's story to life for me. It was fascinating! I don't believe that I had ever read about the internment camps in Java before. The Japanese were incredibly brutal to those in the camps and some parts of this book are a little hard to take because they are so brutal but the details are definitely real and therefore worth reading. Klara and her family are Dutch and had lived in Java for a while  It was truly home to them. The Japanese turn all of their feelings of security on its head. Historical fiction lovers will enjoy this book!

Author Guest Post:

I am very excited to have Isabel Wolff  on A Bookish Affair today as she tells us what inspired her new novel, Shadows Over Paradise.

Shadows Over Paradise is a story of survival.  There are two survivors – an elderly Dutch woman, Klara, who lives on a farm in Cornwall but grew up on a rubber plantation on Java in what was then the Dutch East Indies.  During the Japanese occupation of the Pacific in World War 2, Klara, together with her mother and little brother, was interned in a brutal prison camp.  Then there’s Jenni, a young ghost writer, who is the survivor not of any war, but of a childhood tragedy that has marked her for life.  These two women are brought together when Jenni is commissioned to pen Klara’s memoirs.  Jenni hesitates when she discovers that Klara lives in the very coastal village that holds devastating memories for her; but then she decides to face her demons and go.  And as Jenni listens to Klara’s story, she sees poignant parallels with her own life.  Through her growing friendship with Klara, Jenni finds the strength to confront the secret that she’s spent a lifetime burying, and together the two women try to lay to rest the ghosts of their pasts.

When I began planning Shadows I knew only that it would be about a ghost-writer – a haunted one who takes refuge in the memories of others because she can’t cope with her own.  The theme of the Pacific War came later, when I had to work out what we would see Jenni ghost-writing during the course of the book.  I decided that it would be a wartime memoir, not of the war in Europe which has been written about so much, but of the War in the East. 

We all know what happened to the many thousands of Allied soldiers who were captured by the Japanese during World War 2.  Films such as The Bridge over the River Kwai and, more recently, Unbroken, portray their suffering with vivid horror.  Yet just as many Allied civilians, the majority of them women and children, were also imprisoned, and also suffered starvation, brutality, despair and death, but their story is barely known.  I decided that my novel would focus on their ordeal and their courage; and so the character of Klara was born.  Growing up on a rubber plantation near Bandung, Klara has an idyllic life, until Paradise abruptly falls, and she is interned.  She has never ever spoken of her three year ordeal, but now, with her 80th birthday approaching, she wants to tell her horrifying and heart-wrenching story at last. 

To do the research I interviewed 2 women, now in their late seventies, who had been interned as children and who still had vivid memories of the atrocious conditions that they and their families endured.  I read history books and survivors’ memoirs, and I went to Java.  And as I travelled around this beautiful island, with its emerald green mountains, waterfalls, shining rice fields and idyllic coast, I tried to imagine the living hell that it became. The civilian men – for the most part planters, teachers, civil servants and engineers - were separated from their families and shipped off to slave on the Burma Railway, or even down mines in Japan.  Their wives and children were interned in prison camps that were hideously overcrowded, with no medicine, proper sanitation, and very little food, and where every human comfort had been taken away.  Into this challenging world I placed nine year old Klara, her little brother Peter and their mother Anneke, and the Jochens, their great friends from the rubber plantation. I also put in a neighbour, the vengeful Mrs Dekker, whose betrayal of Klara’s mother in Camp Tjideng is to have tragic consequences.  All of which probably makes Shadows Over Paradise sound grim.  It’s certainly a harrowing read at times, but then it’s about women and children tested to destruction in a terrible war.  But the novel is also about what the human spirit will endure, survive and forgive.  I hope that if you read it, it will perhaps make you feel grateful for the life that you have.

Shadows Over Paradise was published on February 10th by Bantam Books, in trade paperback and on Amazon Kindle and Nook.


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