Shadows Over Paradise by Isabel Wolff

22291591I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but I was shocked. This one does not follow the pattern of Isabel Wolff novels, of slightly sophisticated British chick lit. There is a female protagonist and she is going through relationship problems, but they are very much on the back burner for most of this novel.

After a traumatic incident in her childhood, Jenni Clark makes her living being invisible, as a ghostwriter. She started out doing books for celebrities, but has branched out into working with “ordinary” people whose lives never are. She meets Klara, who has finally agreed to do a privately published memoir for her 80th birthday. Klara lives in the same town where Jenni’s trauma occurred, but she finds herself agreeing to the job anyway. Both women are haunted by their pasts, but find common ground to share through the telling of Klara’s story.

Klara’s story is harrowing. As the daughter of a Dutch plantation farmer on Java, she was interned in Japanese prison camps for the majority of WWII. Reading the details of this imprisonment was hard and emotional. I read most of this book on the flight back from New York and I couldn’t stop crying. While this character is clearly fictional, the events contained in her story clearly happened to thousands of men, women and children, which is chilling. I had family friends at my church growing up that had similar experiences during the War, and while it’s one thing to know intellectually about the conditions, indignities, torture and death, it’s quite another to read about them, in detail, in black and white.

And on a personal note, it made me miss my grandmother who passed away in January. While she never experienced anything like the events in the book (thank goodness!), I wished I had a book filled with her stories, told in her voice to read these days. My grandfather is an avid genealogist, so he has put together books filled with our family history, but it’s not quite the same as hearing her tell stories. I remember always giving her those books (that you can get at Hallmark or the like, “All about Me”) to fill out, but there was never enough time. She developed Alzheimer’s in her later years, so then it was too late. Klara’s best friend, Jane, has dementia in the book, which was also a bit hard to read about.

All in all, it’s a wonderfully written book, but it is not the light fare I had come to expect from this author.