The heading on the back cover of Shadows Over Paradise by bestselling author Isabel Wolff reads, “Sometimes the only way forward is through the past.” That sums up this story nicely. It’s the tale of two women with events in their childhoods which they can’t move beyond because they can’t forgive themselves – two very different women yet very similar at the same time. Two women with ghosts haunting them. It’s a contemporary novel but it’s also a historical novel that highlights WWII events in the Pacific, something I’ve somehow not read as much about. That’s shocking to me, given how much I read. And, yes, it’s women’s fiction although I really don’t like that label. I believe these are women who will touch your heart. They certainly touched mine. And I’m delighted to pay it forward with a giveaway of the copy that I won (yes, I enter giveaways too).
Jenni Clark, a ghostwriter, lives in London with her boyfriend who she loves beyond measure. They’ve had a great relationship and have been talking quite seriously about getting married. But suddenly there’s a huge fly in the ointment – he’s realized he wants children and that it’s not negotiable. They were both really clear that neither of them wanted children when they got together. There is no way Jenni will be having children. It’s not that she can’t physically – it’s that she can’t bear the thought of that kind of responsibility. She knows she is not someone who could ever be trusted with the raising of a child and she can’t risk it. And, unfortunately, she can’t talk to her boyfriend about what’s behind that knowledge because that would open a can of worms she can’t even begin to face. So that’s it then – they’ve come to a crossroads neither of them can pass. Sigh.
When Jenni is offered a job ghostwriting the memoirs of an older woman in Cornwall, she jumps at the chance to get some distance and be able to think things out. What she didn’t bargain for is that this older woman, Klara Tregear, lives in Trennick, the coastal village where Jenni’s nightmares all began. Jenni has sworn she will never return there. Can she even bear to be in the same place where her innocent childhood ended all those years ago? Well, it’s too late now because she’s accepted the commission and she’ll just have to muscle through it.
“I stepped back onto the lane through a gap in the hedge and continued downhill. Gulls wheeled above me, crying their sharp cries. The lane curved to the left, and there was the beach.
Ignoring the thudding in my chest, I kept walking, past the wooden signs pointing to the coastal path and the life buoy in its scarlet case.
I stopped halfway down the slipway. The waves were flecked with white, and there were the cliffs, the tea hut, still there, the cobalt rocks and the crescent of sand. I felt a sudden, sharp constriction in my ribs, as though my heart was hooped with a tightening wire.”
When he made the arrangements, Klara’s son told Jenni that Klara rarely spoke about her past to her family, and Klara does seem anxious about it at first. But as she begins to talk, she almost seems relieved to finally be telling someone about it. Jenni is, however, unprepared for the story Klara has to tell.
“’So…’ The smile she gave me was anxious. ‘You’re going to take me down memory lane.’ Her voice was soft, and she spoke with a slight Dutch inflection. ‘I find the thought a little daunting.’
‘I completely understand. But I’ll try to make the process as pleasant as possible. Just think of it as a long conversation with someone who’s really interested in you.’”
Klara, her mother, and her younger brother, Peter, sailed from Rotterdam in late 1936 to West Java in what was then called the Netherland East Indies. Klara was about four years old. Her father, a laid-off electrical engineer, had accepted a job managing a rubber plantation in Sisi Gunung near Bandung, and was awaiting their arrival. They lived a privileged life on the plantation. They loved the people and the adventures of living in the jungle, even if it did come with risks they’d had never experienced in Rotterdam – risks like pythons and scorpions among other things.
As a child, Klara was vaguely aware that war was coming to Europe but it was on the other side of the world and didn’t seem as real to her as it did to the adults around her who listened to the radio obsessively for the latest news. Still they believed Hitler would not invade Holland because it had chosen to stay out of the war. She could not forget the look on her parents’ faces when they learned in 1940 that the Netherlands had fallen. Despite, or possibly because of their anxiety over the fate of family and friends, Klara’s parents work to keep her and her younger brother’s lives as normal as possible.
“Peter had a wooden popgun that my father had made. He’d wave it about and say it was a machine gun, and that he’d use it if the Germans tried to occupy us.
‘That’s not going to happen,’ my mother put her arm round him. ‘Java is very far from the war.’
‘How far?’ he demanded.
‘Eleven thousand kilometers,’ my father answered. ‘So you mustn’t worry, Pietje. There won’t be any fighting here.’”
Talk about prophetic words. For a while Klara’s father’s statement seems true but then the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and America goes to war with the Japanese. Suddenly the war does not seem so far away. Within days the Japanese attack Singapore and Borneo. Then they attack Hong Kong. Her father realizes they will also come to Java because of the oil there – the Japanese will need that oil. And that’s exactly what they do.
“A week later, Peter and I were in the garden when we saw a red glow in the sky and heard low rumblings. It was as though one of the island’s volcanoes was awakening.
Frightened, we ran to Mum, who told us that it was just thunder, but I knew it was gunfire, because by then we’d heard that the Japanese had made landings in West Java. Peter and I sat together on the veranda. How, I marveled, could something as dreadful as war make the sky look so lovely? Within days, Batavia had been taken, soon followed by Bandung. Java was now in Japanese hands…
The knowledge that we were now occupied was terrifying. Everyone knew of the atrocities the Japanese had carried out on other islands. We’d also heard that in some parts of Java, gangs of youths were taking advantage of the situation and rampokking – looting – the houses of Europeans and killing anyone who tried to fight back.”
And then the day comes when Klara and her family are rounded up and put into internment camps, one for men and one for women and children. And that is the day when Klara’s innocent childhood ends.
I am not going to even begin to go into what took place in those internment camps or which of Klara’s family members did or did not survive. It is a harrowing story of inhumanity and it’s also a story of small miracles, love, strength, and perseverance. Human beings’ sheer determination to survive despite all odds is astonishing at times.
Jenni is a woman running from something deep inside herself. She has no idea that in taking the job to tell Klara’s story, she’s running exactly where she has to be to come face-to-face with her own story. She will have no option but to confront the very thing she has hidden from everyone around her all these years out of misguided shame. In other words, the universe has placed her exactly where she needs to be – as it does so often. Both Jenni and Klara touched me deeply.
After reading Shadows Over Paradise, it’s easy to see why Isabel Wolff is a bestselling author. She weaves these two women’s stories together beautifully. The circumstances of Klara’s early life demonstrate one more time that life doesn’t make any promises and can change in an instant on sometimes dramatic levels in just about any direction. Being resilient and being willing to keep getting up and going forward is what we all must do when the unforeseen happens. This was one I couldn’t put down. How could I, and leave these two women stranded?! I hope you’re as swept away by Shadows Over Paradise as I was – and you could win it!
Can’t wait to read it?
Shadows Over Paradise was published on February 10, 2015, so it’s available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks).
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One lucky reader will win a finished trade paperback copy of Shadows Over Paradise by Isabel Wolff!
1) The deadline for entries is Saturday night, 4/11/2015, at 11:59pm EDST. No entries after that date/time will be eligible.
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