Ghostwritten – Java and Cornwall – Isabel Wolff

ghostwritten book

A chilling and extremely moving account of what could have and probably did happen in Java during WW2 . Have a box of tissues to hand. The writing as well as the events described will move you to tears.

Story in a nutshell

Jenni is a ‘ghost’: she writes the lives of other people. It’s a job that suits her well: still haunted by a childhood tragedy, she finds it easier to take refuge in the memories of others rather than dwell on her own.

Now she has an exciting new commission – she is to write the memoirs of a Dutchwoman, Klara.  Klara was a child in WW2 and was interned in a camp on Java during the Japanese occupation.

Jenni and Klara begin to work together and as they do so Jenni begins to examine her own memories of her own past. Will the ghostwriter be able to put her own ghosts of the past to rest too?

Place and setting

From Cornwal, via the Death Railway to the island of Java and the many sites of the internment camps and jungles
From Cornwall, via the Death Railway to the island of Java and the many sites of the internment camps and jungles. The author mentions on her website that  one of her parent’s friends had been a POW on the Thai-Burma Railway – Death Railway and the inspiration for the novel had come from this and her childhood memories of the TV show Tenko amongst other things

The novel has a remarkable  sense of place, since the place is as much a character here as anything else. From the peace and calm of Polvarth in Cornwall – based on Rosevine –  and transports you right to the heart of the tropical heat of Java. The blistering heat, ‘mountains swathed in jungle’ and the dangers….

Java landscape - Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff
Java landscape – Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff

Klara remembers how her mother first described it to her, to try and make her feel at home –

My mother told me, before we left Holland, that we were going to live in a faraway land that was warm and colourful – ‘an earthly paradise’.

There is a lot of history and harrowing facts woven into this story too. Not to mention the smallest detail with a huge impact –

Jasmine and my mother were always cleaning because in the tropics, mould and mildew would take hold very quickly….Every week we had to disinfect the floor or the insects would move in”

However there are moments of childhood wonder – which gives a wider picture of the amazing life on the island before the trouble started –

My earliest memory is of the little Tjik tjaks, dainty beige lizards that used to run along our living room walls.They were caled Tjik-tjaks because that’s the noise they made.

Very different to the story set in  Cornwall but all the more fascinating perhaps because of it. Cornwall is beautifully evoked however – whilst Polvarth is based on Rosevine,  Trennick is based on Portscatho. Nailsford in the Cotswolds is fictional as is the Church of St Jude’s.

Cornwall  - where Jennie meets Klara and the story begins....Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff
Cornwall – where Jennie meets Klara and the story begins….Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff

Booktrail recommended!

Isabel Wolff will make you cry-in a good way I hasten to add but this is a very poignant and moving account of life in a Java internment camp and it doesn’t make for very easy reading sometimes. There are real moral dilemmas, heartbreaking decisions and two remarkable women telling their stories.

The dual time line is ideal for the telling of this story – two parallel stories of a two women who have suffered hurt and loss. The ghostwriter certainly had a tough job and this book gave me new respect for what these writers actually do.

The relationship between Jenni the writer and Klara who is elderly and has decided to share secrets that she has only decided to share now. I could only imagine how this must have been a strange and moving experience for both women in different ways. Having said that the difficulties Jenni had when travelling to Cornwall and facing up to her own issues is also well explored.

However it is Klara’s story that is of course the main focus and for me the most harrowing and hard to read story that evoked so many emotions – very realistic and very hard to accept that it happened. There is so much emotion wrapped up in these scenes that you feel as if you are imposing on someone’s grief – but Klara is telling you the story that she wants to tell, has to tell and I for one felt privileged that she had seemingly chosen me to tell it.

The relationship between the two women and the end of the story – well I won’t spoil anything but this definitely had an effect which lingered.

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