BOOK REVIEW: 'Shadows Over Paradise': A Ghostwriter Confronts Her Client's Past -- and Her Own

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

A  successful ghostwriter, Jenni Clark is used to dealing with the demons of the past in crafting memoirs for her clients. When she meets Vincent Tregear at a friend's wedding and he learns of her profession in Isabel Wolff's "Shadows Over Paradise" (Bantam trade paperback original, 384 pages, $15.00) he asks if she would be willing to work with his 79-year-old mother to write her memoirs.

BOOK REVIEW: 'Shadows Over Paradise': A Ghostwriter Confronts Her Client's Past -- and Her Own

When Jenni learns that the widowed Klara Tregear lives in the Cornwall village of Polvarth, she hesitates…Polvarth and Jenni have a history. But the challenge of working with a Dutch woman who was interned by the Japanese on Java during World War II is enough to tip the balance toward accepting the commission.

She travels to Cornwall by train from her home in London, a home she shares with schoolteacher Rick. Their relationship is seriously troubled over children: Rick wants them, Jenni doesn't. Maybe absence will help the relationship; in any case, the idea of creating the memoirs of a woman who survived a brutal internment in the then Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, is more than enough to overcome her fears.

The two women bond as Jenni settles into Klara's guest cottage, part of the property she owns that includes a 120-acre farm.  Klara grew up on a rubber plantation owned by her father on Java. It was an idyllic life that was turned upside down when the Japanese invaded the Dutch colony in 1942. The occupiers rounded up all the Europeans and put them in concentration camps. The natives were exempted for the most part as part of Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere program, but many mixed race people are interned along with the Europeans.

The privations endured by young Klara, her mother and her brother Peter are extreme.  Klara's father is separated from the family,  in a separate camp for men. The internees are treated with contempt by the Japanese camp commander, a sadist who ended up being executed at the war crimes tribunals after the war. Disease and starvation were common and the internees were moved seemingly arbitrarily from camp to camp, with each one being worse.

When Klara finally tells Jenni the fate of her brother Peter, the ghostwriter is forced to confront her own demons. No, I won't reveal this spoiler of spoilers in a beautifully written novel.

If you liked Jamie Ford's novels -- "Songs of Willow Frost" and "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" (link to my reviews: I'm guessing you'll like "Shadows over Paradise."  Ford and Wolff deal with war and remembrance, to borrow a phrase from the great American writer Herman Wouk, who is still alive at the age of 99.

I think "Shadows Over Paradise" would make an outstanding book club selection. It has a Random House Reader's Guide to aid in the discussion. Pick up a copy and see what I mean.
Isabel Wolff
Isabel Wolff

About the author

Isabel Wolff's ten bestselling novels are published worldwide. 'Ghostwritten', set in present day Cornwall and on wartime Java, was published in the UK in March 2014 and will be published in the US in February 2015 as 'Shadows Over Paradise'. 'The Very Picture of You' was published in the UK and the US in October 2011. 'A Vintage Affair', was an 'Best of 2009' title and was shortlisted by the American Library Association for their Reading List awards (Women's Fiction). Isabel lives in west London with her children, younger step-son and cocker spaniel puppy. Become a Facebook fan of Isabel's, follow her on Twitter or visit