When young ghostwriter Jenni Clark agrees to pen the memoir of an elderly farm owner, she expects nothing more than the ordinary, quiet tale of a life well-lived by a woman well-loved. But Klara’s life has been far from quiet; and as she narrates her story of a family ripped apart by life in the internment camps of Java during World War II, Jenni finds herself forced to face her own ghosts, products of a long-buried, devastating childhood secret. In lovely prose, with humor and grace, Wolff creates a riveting tale of love and loss across generations.
Isabel took time to chat with Random House Reader’s Circle about what inspired her and what her research was like. Check out the full conversation here!
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.