Book review: Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff

Two women, born nearly 50 years apart but both haunted by family tragedy… and now their paths are destined to cross.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 8th July 2014, 10:00 am
Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff
Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff

The relationship between a young ghostwriter and an elderly survivor of the Japanese internment camps in Java is just one strand of Isabel Wolff’s breathtakingly beautiful and sensitive new novel.

Wolff has written a string of contemporary rom-coms but Ghostwritten, an immaculately researched and emotive story about painful memories and confronting the past, moves into new and impressive territory.

This is a classy, compelling exploration of women imprisoned both literally and mentally, and a bleak reminder of the terrible privations suffered by Europeans during the Japanese occupation of the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

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Jenni Clark enjoys a comfortable London life. She shares her home with boyfriend Rick, a primary school teacher, and loves her work as a freelance ghostwriter, writing about the lives of people who either can’t or don’t want to do it themselves.

It’s a job that suits her well because she prefers to be ‘invisible,’ immersing herself in other people’s memories, mainly because it distracts her from her own unhappy ones.

Jenni is haunted by a dark secret, a childhood tragedy that she shares with no-one, not even Rick. The legacy is that she never wants to have children. ‘Parenthood,’ she tells Rick, ‘is a white-knuckle ride and I don’t want to get on.’ Unfortunately, it’s a ‘ride’ that Nick is eager to embark on and it’s denting their happiness.

When Jenni is offered an exciting commission to work on the life story of Dutchwoman Klara Tregear who was interned in a camp on Java during the Second World War, she takes the job even though it means staying in a Cornish village that holds devastating memories.

As Jenni and Klara get to know each other and Klara’s heartbreaking story of capture, deprivation, torture and betrayal unfolds, Jenni begins to do much more than shed light on a neglected part of history.

Knowing that Klara had to make life and death choices, and forced to examine her own memories, Jenni discovers that reading her own past is cathartic. With Klara’s help, will she finally be able to lay the ghosts of yesteryear to rest?

Moving between the jewelled seas and peaceful, sunny coves of south Cornwall and the blistering, blinding heat of the Far East in the 1940s, Ghostwritten is a gripping and extraordinarily poignant story which captures both heart and mind.

Wolff’s harrowing portrayal of the shared ordeal of women forced to undergo separation, torture, starvation and illness in the camps evokes place and time with searing intensity, while the two strong female characters speak loudly of universal emotions and common bonds.

Written with lyrical elegance, a well of compassion and a perceptive eye for the function and legacy of memory, this is a gem of a story, full of hidden depths, cruel history and powerful themes.

A moving and mesmerising mix of past and present…

(Harper, paperback, £7.99)