Monday, March 9, 2015

Shadows Over Paradise

Title:  Shadows Over Paradise
(also previously released as Ghostwritten)
Author:  Isabel Wolff
Publication Information:  Bantam. 2015. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0345533186 / 978-0345533180

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Holiday makers speckle the beach, reclining behind brightly striped windbreaks, hands held to eyes against the late-afternoon sun as they gaze at the glittering sea."

Favorite Quote:  "Siblings share the same childhood memories ... They even share the same genes. So to lost a brother or sister is to lose a part of oneself. People say that it's like losing a limb, but it's much more than that. It's as though a piece has been gouged out of your heart."

Shadows over Paradise is the stories of two women. The current day story is that of Jenni Clark. She is a ghostwriter, making a career out of helping people write her memoirs. She is in a serious long term relationship, but the relationship seems to be floundering. She has strong friendships, but she also has secrets she has never told her friends.

Klara is an elderly farm owner, still working the family farm with one of her sons. Family members know that Klara has a story to tell and secrets she has never shared. They finally convince her to tell her story, and Jenni is hired as the writer. Klara's story goes back to World War II.

Jenni comes to the farm to interview Klara as a starting point for the memoirs. This journey brings Jenni back to a place from her past - a place of loss and sorrow. Gradually, through the conversations, the stories of both women emerge. Klara's story is one of terrible suffering, of terrible choices, and ultimately of survival. Jenni's story is one of a terrible accident, which she believes occurred because of her choices. Both center around the loss of a sibling.

Jenni's story is the shorter of the two. She loses her brother in a terrible accident at a young age. She spends her life living with her guilt and hiding it.

Klara's story is developed more in depth and is the more compelling of the two. In the context of Klara's story, the book presents an aspect of World War II history. The Dutch came to the "East Indies" in the 1800s. They settled on plantations producing crops such as coffee, tea, and rubber to be supplied to the Netherlands. The Netherlands entered into war against Japan in 1941. The Japanese in turn attacked and took over the Dutch East Indies. Initially, the plantation workers were kept on to keep the crops producing. Slowly, however, as the threat grew larger, thousands of Dutch civilians in the East Indies were put in camps; some were even sent to Japan as forced labors.

Klara and her brother are children at the time of the war, growing up in an idyllic tropical setting. Such was the fate of their family. Initially, her father, a plantation manager, is asked to keep the plantation running. Then, he along with other Dutch men, are taken. Ultimately, she, her brother, and her mother are imprisoned in a camp. What comes after was suffering and heartbreaking choices - the loss of her brother and the start of Klara's secrets.

Individually, the stories of both women are tragic and heartbreaking. The experiences and events of their childhoods forever alter both their lives. What is less engaging is the comparison between the two stories. The book draws the comparison too clearly and too directly. Both women lose a younger brother. Both feel responsible and, in consequence, guilty. Both mothers say things to these girls that can never be forgotten. Both women never tell anyone their secret. The big difference is that Klara, through time and experience, has found a way to love, life, and joy despite her loss. Jenni has yet to discover that path.

It appears that the book should be about Jenni; it begins and ends with Jenni. However, Klara's story is so much stronger that Jenni's is overshadowed in comparison. The book connects too many of the dots of comparison, leaving Klara's as the more memorable story.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.


  1. I agree with you that the Klara story line was the more compelling. I found myself rushing through the Jenni sections to get to Klara's. It was an eye-opener to read about this piece of world history and I thought the author did a nice job of presenting it through Klara's suppressed memory.

    1. I agree with you about Klara's story and about the history it depicts. I would have loved the entire book to be about her story, perhaps incorporating what happened to Klara after the war and how she made peace with her experiences.