Sometimes the only way forward is through the past.
Jenni Clark is a ghostwriter. She loves to immerse herself in other people’s stories—a respite from her own life, and from a relationship that appears to be nearing its end. Jenni’s latest assignment takes her to a coastal hamlet in England, where she’s agreed to pen the memoir of an elderly farm owner named Klara. Jenni assumes the project will be easy: a quiet, ordinary tale of a life well lived.
But Klara’s story is far from quiet. She recounts the tale of a family torn apart by World War II, and of disgraceful acts committed against a community in the Japanese prison camps on the Pacific island paradise of Java. As harrowing details emerge and stunning truths come to light, Jenni is compelled to confront a secret she’s spent a lifetime burying.
Weaving together the lives of two very different women, Isabel Wolff has created a captivating novel of love, loss, and hope that reaches across generations.
Praise for Shadows Over Paradise
“An excellent choice for fans of Sarah Jio and Kate Morton.”—Booklist
“Shifting focus from the present to the past with ease, this novel brings to the page the reality of the horrors of the Japanese-run internment camps in vivid and gory detail. Wolff’s latest will please fans of women’s stories that include a realistic depiction of life during wartime and the ability to overcome adversity.”—Library Journal
“Beautifully written . . . an outstanding book club selection . . . If you liked Jamie Ford’s novels [then] you’ll like Shadows Over Paradise.”—Huntington News
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I knew that Nina’s wedding was going to change things between Rick and me, though I could never have guessed by how much. Up until then, it had all been so easy—he and I had fitted into each other’s lives as though we’d always known one another. And now we were going to a wedding—our first one together—and suddenly being with Rick was hard.
“They’ve got great weather for it,” he remarked as I locked the door of our small North London flat. The early haze had given way to a pristine blue sky.
“A good omen,” I said as we walked to the car.
Rick beeped open his old Golf. “I didn’t know you were superstitious, Jenni. But then I don’t know everything about you.” There was a slight edge to his voice.
“Well, I am superstitious.” I put our gift, in its silvery bag, on the backseat. “But then I was born on Friday the thirteenth.”
Rick smiled. “That should make you immune.”
We drove west, talking pleasantly but with an unfamiliar reserve, born of the anguished conversations that we’d been having over the past two or three days.
We sped down the A40 and were soon driving along rural roads past fields still stubbled and pale from the harvest. It was very warm for mid-October, and clear—an Indian summer’s day, piercingly beautiful with its golden light and long shadows.
Nina’s parents lived at the southern end of the Cotswolds. Over the years I’d visited the house for weekends or the occasional party—Nina’s twenty-first, and her thirtieth, which was already five years ago, I reflected soberly. For fifteen years, she and Honor had been my closest friends. And today it was Nina’s wedding, and before long, no doubt, there’d be a christening.
Rick glanced at me. “You okay, Jen?”
He downshifted a gear. “You sighed.”
“Oh . . . no reason. I’m just a bit tired.” A bad sleeper at the best of times, I’d lain awake most of the night. As I’d stared into the darkness, I’d longed for Rick to hold me and whisper that everything would be all right, but he’d turned away.
“So where do we go from here?” For a moment I thought that Rick was talking about us. “Which way?”
I spotted the sign for Bisley. “Go right.”
Minutes later we turned on to Nailsford Lane, where a clutch of white balloons bobbed from a farm gate.
“Looks like we’re the first,” Rick remarked as we drove into the parking field, which was empty except for an abandoned tractor. He parked in the shade of a huge copper beech; as he opened his door, I could hear its leaves rustle and rattle. “Is it going to be a big do?”
“Pretty big—about eighty, Nina told me.”
“So, who will I know, apart from her and Jon?”
I pulled down the visor and checked my reflection in the mirror.
“I’m not sure—she’s invited quite a few of the people we knew at Bristol; not that I’ve stayed in touch with that many . . .” I winced at my red-veined eyes and pale cheeks. “I’ve only really kept up with Nina and Honor.” I wound my long, dark hair into a bun, then pinned onto that the pale-pink silk flower that matched my dress.
Rick pulled a blue tie out of his jacket pocket. “So I guess Honor will be here?”
“Of course.” Rick grimaced; I glanced at him. “Don’t be like that, Rick—Honor’s lovely.”
“Exuberant,” I countered, wishing that my boyfriend was a bit keener on my best friend.
He groaned. “She never stops talking. So she’s in the right job, not that I listen.”
“You should—her show’s the best thing on Radio Five.” As Rick looped and twisted the blue silk, I suppressed a dark smile. He’s tying the knot, I thought.
Reaching into the back for the gift, I saw more cars arriving, bumping slowly over the field. We made our way across the grass, which was studded with dandelion heads, their downy seeds drifting like plankton. We strolled up Church Walk, then pushed on the lych-gate, which was garlanded with moon daisies, and went up the graveled path.
Jon was waiting anxiously by the porch with his brothers, all three men in morning dress with yellow silk waistcoats. They greeted us warmly and we chatted for a minute or two; then the photographer, who had been sorting out his camera on top of a tomb, offered to take a picture of Rick and me.
“Let’s have a smile,” he said as he clicked away. “A bit more—it’s a wedding, not a funeral,” he added genially. “That’s better.” There was another volley of clicks, then he squinted at the screen. “Lovely.”
Tim handed Rick and me our Order of Service sheets, and we walked into the cool of the church.
I’d been to Saint Jude’s before but had forgotten how small it was, and how simple the interior, with its plain walls, wooden roof, and box pews. There was the smell of beeswax and dust and age, mingled with the scent of the oriental lilies that festooned the columns and pulpit. It was also very light, with clear glass, except for the east window, which depicted Christ blessing the children. The sun streamed through its colored panes, scattering jeweled beams across the whitewashed walls.
“Lovely church,” Rick murmured as we sat down.
“It is,” I agreed, though today its beauty was a shard in my heart. Rick and I glanced through our service sheets as the church filled up, heels tapping over the flagstones, wood creaking as people sat down, then chatted quietly or just listened to the Bach partita the organist was playing.
Jon’s parents went to their seats. Behind them I recognized a colleague of Nina’s, and now here was Honor, in a green bombshell dress that hugged her curves and complemented her creamy skin and blond hair. She blew me and Rick an extravagant kiss, then sat near the front.
Now Jon and his older brother, James, took their places together, while their younger brother, Tim, ushered in a few latecomers. Nina’s mother, in a turquoise opera coat and matching hat, smiled benignly as she made her way to her pew.
I turned and caught a glimpse of Nina. She stood on the porch, in the white silk dupion sheath that Honor and I had helped her choose, her veil drifting behind her.
As the Bach drew to an end, the vicar stepped in front of the altar and welcomed everyone. Then there was a burst of Handel, and we all stood as Nina walked down the aisle on her father’s arm.
After the opening prayers we sang “Morning Has Broken,” then Honor stepped up to the lectern to read the sonnet that Nina had chosen.
“My true love hath my heart, and I have his,” she began, her dulcet voice echoing slightly. “By just exchange one for the other given. I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss. There never was a better bargain driven . . .”
As Honor read, I felt a sting of envy. The lovers understood each other so well. I’d thought I had that with Rick . . .
“My true love hath my heart—and I have his,” Honor concluded.
The vicar raised his hands. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony . . .” I looked at Nina and Jon, side by side in a pool of light, and wondered whether these words would ever be said for Rick and me. “Nor taken in hand wantonly,” the vicar was saying, “but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, and soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.” At that I felt Rick shift slightly. “First, it was ordained for the procreation of children . . .” I stole a glance at him, but his face gave nothing away. “Therefore, if any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else, hereafter, forever hold his peace.”
I tried to follow the service but found it suddenly impossible to focus on the music, or the sermon, or on the beauty and solemnity of the vows. As Nina and Jon committed themselves to each other with unfaltering voices, I felt another stab of pain. The register was signed, the last hymn sung, and the blessing given; then, as Widor’s Toccata mingled with the pealing bells, we followed Nina and Jon outside.
We showered the couple with petals and took snaps with our phones; then the photographer began the formal photos of them while we all milled around by the porch.
“Great to see you! Fantastic weather!”
“Lovely service—much prefer the King James.”
“Me too. Well read, Honor!”
“Should we make our way to the house?”
“Not yet. I think they want a group pic.”
Rick and I, keen to get away from the crowd, strolled through the churchyard; we looked at the gravestones, most of which were very old and eroded, blotched with yellow lichen.
Rick stopped in front of a slate headstone. “That’s odd. It’s got a pineapple on it.”
I looked at the carved image. “A pineapple means prosperity, as do figs, and I guess this was a prosperous area, probably because of the wool trade.”
We walked on in silence, past stones that had angels on them, and doves and candles, the symbolism of which was clear.
We could hear the chatter of the guests, a sudden burst of Honor’s unmistakable laughter, then the photographer’s voice. “Could you look at me, Nina?”
Rick approached another grave, by a yew. He peered at it. “This one’s got a bunch of grapes carved on it.”
“Grapes represent the wine at the Last Supper.”
Rick glanced at me. “How do you know all this, Jen? I didn’t think you were religious.”
“I had to research it for one of my books. It was years ago, but I’ve remembered a lot of it.”
“Now look at each other again.”
“Here’s a rose,” Rick said, pointing to another headstone. “I assume that means love?”
“Oh, very romantic.”
“No. Roses show how old the person was when they died.” I studied the worn emblem. “This is a full rose, which was used for adults.” I read the inscription. “Mary Ann Betts . . . was . . .” I peered at her dates. “Twenty-five. The stem’s severed, to show that her life was cut short.”
“I see.” Our conversation felt stiff and formal, as though we were strangers, not lovers.
“Can we have a kiss?”
“A partially opened rose means a teenager.”
“And another one. Lovely.”
“And a rosebud is for a child.”
“Hold his hand now.”
Rick nodded thoughtfully. “A sad subject.”
“Yes . . .”
“Okay, all stand together, please—nice and close!”
Rick and I joined everyone for the group photo, for which the photographer climbed onto a stepladder, wobbling theatrically to make us all laugh. We smiled up at him while he clicked away, then, hand in hand, Nina and Jon led us down the path, across the field, to the house.
The Old Forge was just as I remembered it—long and low, its pale stone walls ablaze with pyracantha and Virginia creeper. A large marquee filled the lawn. In the distance were the hills of Slad, the plunging pastures dotted with sheep, their bleats carrying across the valley on the still air.
We joined the receiving line, greeting both sets of parents, then the bride and groom.
Nina’s face lit up, and as we hugged I had to fight back sudden tears. I didn’t know whether they were tears of happiness for her or of self-pity. “You look so beautiful, Nina.”
“Thank you.” She put her lips to my ear. “You next,” she whispered.
Jon kissed me on the cheek, then clasped Rick’s hand.
“Good to see you both! Thanks for coming!”
“Congratulations, Jon,” Rick said warmly. “It was a lovely service. Congratulations, Nina.”
Now we moved on into the large sunny sitting room where drinks were being served. I put our gift on a table among a cluster of other presents and cards. A waiter offered us a glass of champagne. Rick took one and raised it. “Here’s to the happy couple.”
I sipped my fizz. “They are happy. It’s wonderful.”
“How long have they been together?”
“About the same as us. They got engaged on their first anniversary,” I added neutrally, then laughed at myself for ever having thought that Rick and I might do the same.
I looked at Rick, so handsome, with his open expression, dark hair, and blue gaze. I tried, and failed, to imagine life without him. We’d agreed to talk things over again the next day. Before I could think about that, though, a gong summoned us into the marquee, which was bedecked with white agapanthus and pink nerines, the tables gleaming with silver and china. We found our names and stood behind our chairs while the vicar said grace.
Rick and I had been placed with Honor, and with Amy and Sean, whom I’d known at college but hadn’t seen for years, and an old schoolfriend of Jon’s, Al. I was glad that Nina had put him next to Honor; she’d been single for a while now, and he was very attractive. Also at our table was Nina’s godfather, Vincent Tregear. I vaguely remembered him from her twenty-first birthday. A near neighbor named Carolyn Browne introduced herself. I steeled myself for the effort of making small talk with people I don’t know; unlike Honor, I’m not good at it, and in my frame of mind I knew it would be harder than usual.
I heard Carolyn explain to Rick that she was a solicitor, recently retired. “I’m so busy though,” she confessed, laughing. “I’m a governor of a local school; I play golf and bridge; I travel. I was dreading retirement, but it’s really fine.” She smiled at Rick. “Not that you’re anywhere near that stage. So, what do you do?”
He unfurled his napkin. “I’m a teacher—at a primary school in Islington.”
“He’s the deputy head,” I volunteered proudly. Carolyn smiled at me. “And what about you, erm . . . ?”
“Jenni.” I turned my place card toward her.
“Jenni,” she echoed. “And you’re . . .” She nodded at Rick.
“Yes, I’m Rick’s . . .” The word girlfriend made us seem like teenagers; partner made us sound as though we were in business, not in love. “Other half,” I concluded, though I disliked this too; it seemed to suggest, ominously, that we’d been sliced apart.
“And what do you do?” Carolyn asked me.
My heart sank—I hate talking about myself. “I’m a writer.”
“A writer?” Her face lit up. “Do you write novels?”
“No,” I replied. “It’s all nonfiction. But you won’t have heard of me.”
“I read a lot, so maybe I will. What’s your name? Jenni”—Carolyn peered at my place card—“Clark.” She narrowed her eyes. “Jenni Clark.”
“I don’t write under that name.”
“So is it Jennifer Clark?”
“No—what I mean is, I don’t write under any name.”
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Isabel Wolff
Random House Reader’s Circle: What drew you to write about what happened in Java during World War II?
Isabel Wolff: When planning my novels, I always start with what the heroine does for a living, because from this, everything else will flow. Once I knew that Jenni would be a ghostwriter, I had to work out what the story that she “ghosts” was going to be. I decided that it would be a wartime memoir, not of the conflict in Europe, which has been written about so much, but of the war in the East instead. I’ve always been very interested in the Pacific war. I remember, as a child, learning that my parents’ friend Dennis had been a POW on the Burma-Thailand Railway. My mother told me, in hushed tones, that Dennis had suffered terribly and seen “dreadful things,” although she didn’t want to say what those things might have been. As a teenager I used to avidly watch the TV drama Tenko, about a group of British and Australian women interned in a jungle camp on Sumatra. I was moved by their struggle against disease, malnutrition, and the capricious cruelty of their captors. I was also fascinated by their desire to help one another but also, at times, to betray one another. And I’d read A Town Like Alice, set in occupied Malaya, a novel that has stayed with me all my life. So I decided that my ghostwritten story would be a memoir of internment in the Far East. There were many locations in which it could have been set: civilian men, women, and children were interned right across the region, in Singapore, the Philippines, China, Malaya, and Hong Kong. I decided to set the novel in the Dutch East Indies, on Java, where the camps were most numerous. They were also, by and large, the worst.
RHRC: Parts of Klara’s and Jenni’s stories are very painful to read. Were they painful to write too?
IW: They were, largely because I write in the first person and so I have to “become” my characters in order to convey what they’ve been through in a believable way. Klara’s story required a great deal of research. First I interviewed two women who had been interned on Java as children and whose memories of the camps were still vivid, seventy years on. I also read the memoirs of Dutch survivors, whose accounts of the appalling conditions, cruel treatment, and the atrocious train transports were distressing. So I immersed myself in their remembered world of a paradise that had become a living hell, and into this I placed the fictional characters of Klara and Peter and their parents, the Jochens, and the vengeful Mrs. Dekker. Jenni’s story was also painful to write, but in a different way: She is a captive too, though her prison is an internal one of profound remorse at the fatal mistake she made on the beach that day.
RHRC: Was it difficult writing from two very different women’s points of view? Who did you feel closest to, Klara or Jenni?
IW: I didn’t find it difficult because I was so interested in them both. I knew that I’d simply have to inhabit their characters completely in order to summon their memories and feelings as though they were my own. In Klara’s case this meant doing the detailed historical research about her life in Holland and on Java, which would enable me to relate to what had happened to her in an authentic way. I felt close both to Klara and Jenni, because, like them, I have lost a brother, and know all too well their sense of irreparable loss, the feeling that a part of one’s very self has been wrenched away.
RHRC: Klara and Jenni are thrown together by a twist of fate, or by random chance. On the surface they seem to have little in common, but memories play an important part in both their lives. Was memory—its function, its legacy—something that you particularly wanted to explore in the novel? How powerful do you think it can be in forming personalities, forming lives?
IW: It’s true that these two women, one old, one young, seem to have little in common. However, as the interviews progress, they realize that they do. The twist of fate that reunites them is Jenni’s meeting Klara’s son Vincent at the wedding. Despite the mental terrors that Polvarth holds for her, Jenni decides to return, in order to confront the past, and to try and lay to rest the ghost that has haunted her for twenty-five years. So yes, memory is a key theme, particularly how we cope—or don’t cope—with very difficult memories. Jenni has chosen a job that lets her take refuge in the memories of others, because her own memories are a source of such pain. The novel is also about the power of memory, in that we are our memories—the sum total of all our experiences, held in our minds, to be retrieved and reflected upon, making us behave in this way or that. If dementia takes away our memories, it robs us of our personality too.
RHRC: Klara is quite literally a prisoner. Jenni is a bit of a prisoner too, in a prison of her own making. Do you think many people are trapped by the burden of guilt? How does one break free?
IW: Klara has been imprisoned by an occupying force, but Jenni has been imprisoned by her own conscience. She feels completely culpable for what happened to Ted. That tragedy and its legacy have shaped her personality, making her gravitate toward the shadows, concealing herself, happy that few people even know her name. It has also led her to shun family life, because she believes that she doesn’t deserve to have a child. I felt very sorry for Jenni. In real life, perhaps therapy would have helped her come to terms with what happened. But she exists in a novel, and I decided that Klara would help her start to break free of her past, enabling her to view the tragedy in a different way.
RHRC: You describe Cornwall and Java in great detail. Are these places you know well? Are some locations in the novel fictional?
IW: The rubber plantation, Sisi Gunung, is made up, but all the other places on Java are real and are described from my research, and from a trip I made to Java. Polvarth is fictional but is based on the coastal hamlet of Rosevine, where I spend many holidays. Trennick is modeled on the fishing village of Portscatho, nearby. The Cotswold village of Nailsford and the Church of Saint Jude are invented, and I created one or two of the characters that feature in Tjideng. Lieutenant Sonei, Mrs. Cornelisse, Mrs. Nicholson, and the Korean guard Oohara all existed, but I have invented Sergeant Asako and Lieutenant Kochi. I have also transposed the worst punishments from camps Kampung Makassar, Banyu Biru, and Ambarawa to Camp Tjideng.
RHRC: How long did the novel take you to write, and were you consumed with thoughts of the Second World War in the Far East all the time you wrote it?
IW: The novel took eighteen months to write, largely because of all the historical research that I had to do. I was fairly obsessed by thoughts of the war in the Far East. I’d close my eyes and try to imagine what it must have been like to be in a house with eighty or even a hundred other people, with no possibility to be alone, in peace and quiet. I tried to imagine the hunger that prompted these desperately thin women to write out recipes for delicious dishes that they knew they would never get to eat. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have my head shaved, or to stand at tenko for hours at a time with a child in my arms. What these many thousands of women endured is not widely known; I wanted to write a novel that would have their ordeal, and their courage, at its heart.
RHRC: In some ways Shadows Over Paradise is a departure from your previous novels. For one thing, the main thrust of the novel isn’t a love story. Was this intentional?
IW: Shadows Over Paradise is first and foremost a story of survival, and so to have focused on romance would have felt wrong. Having said this, there is some romance—the growing love between Arif and Susan, for example, and the faltering relationship between Jenni and Rick. But the main thrust of the novel is about how women coped in such atrocious conditions, how they kept sane, not knowing where their husbands and sons were, or if they were even alive. It’s also about how they tried to maintain decent standards of behavior when they were living with so much fear, and when every basic comfort had been taken away. As for Shadows Over Paradise being a departure from my previous novels, this is true. The earlier romantic comedies such as The Making of Minty Malone, Out of the Blue, and Rescuing Rose have given way to stories in which I blend present and past. This is something that began with A Vintage Affair and continued with
The Very Picture of You. Shadows Over Paradise maintains that process of change. I very much hope that the readers of my earlier books will enjoy these later, semi-historical novels too.
RHRC: For those who would like to get to know more about Java in the time of the Second World War, what resources would you recommend?
IW: I’ve listed many books on the subject of the Japanese occupation of Java. Of these, I particularly recommend Jannie Wilbrink’s Java Lost, Boudewijn van Oort’s excellent and scholarly Tjideng Reunion, and Ernest Hillen’s moving memoir, Way of a Boy. There are also some very informative websites, notably Elizabeth van Kampen’s Dutch East Indies site, www.dutch-east-indies.com; the East Indies Camp Archives, www.indischekamparchieven.nl; and the Tjideng Camp website, members.iinet.net.au/~vanderkp/tjideng.html.