Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ghostwritten - Isabel Wolff

'...we should embrace all our memories, whether joyful or painful. They're all we ever really own in this life.'

Jenni is a ghostwriter; she loses herself in the details and intricacies of the lives of others partly to avoid facing up to aspects of her own life in the present and the past. At her friend Nina's wedding, Jenni meets someone who suggests his mother, Klara, now approaching her eightieth birthday, may be ready to record her memoirs; she has a traumatic, moving, life story to share, and has thus far never divulged many of the details to anyone else, even her family. Jenni is keen to follow-up on this, but when she discovers exactly where Klara lives, a little village in Cornwall named Polvarth, she hesitates to take the job on, as the place holds distressing memories. 

I was soon drawn deeply into this moving, compelling story, it offered me an insight into a setting and a part of history and the world that I knew little about. Klara was Dutch and spent her childhood in Java (now Indonesia) where her father had gone to run a rubber plantation. She grew up happily there at first, with friends amongst other workers' families and amongst the locals too. Then the Second World War, which at first seemed distant from them, arrived on Java, and brought with it huge changes for them all, and terrifying times, her father taken away, then Klara and her mother and brother Peter interned in a camp and kept there in deprivation by the occupying Japanese troops. I learned about tenko, the experience of the roll-call faced by the women and children, and I read how badly people were treated; some of their experiences are very upsetting and harrowing indeed to read about. I was interested, and saddened, to learn not only of these times, but also the period immediately following the end of the war, when it was still so difficult for some of the survivors to find a place to call home where they would be welcomed - neither Indonesia nor Holland seemed entirely hospitable.

Isabel Wolff has evidently researched the period and the setting thoroughly to authenticate her story of Klara’s experiences. In Klara, she has created a strong, admirable and brave woman who has endured and thrived despite her terrible experiences as a girl. I felt that having read this story I had been through it with her, the time and place is brought to life by the author and I got to know them. The voice is clever too, though Klara is an older lady now, she recounts her childhood experiences very much with that child's voice I felt, which felt right. 

Jenni’s story also grabbed me. I wondered if she would ever be able to discuss and reconcile herself to the events of her past, and move forwards. Would her relationship with her partner, schoolteacher Rick, be strong enough, would they be able to reconcile over the fact that Rick would like to have children and Jenni doesn't. I felt an understanding of her, and also very sad for her, that she still carried such a burden regarding events when she was a child, and that they still affected her life so deeply, keeping her in the background of her own life. The author touches insightfully on the experiences of those with a close family bond as a child versus those who have a lonely childhood.

The friendship and trust that grew between these two women was wonderful to witness, I loved how they got on. They share a common bond, how the past has affected them both; both had aspects of their childhoods in effect stolen away from them and are carrying a deep sadness from the past, and the novel explores the gradual facing up to what happened. Memories are recalled, painful, difficult, at times awful, but there is hope and friendship, love and the opportunity for overcoming loss and tragedy to move forwards. Klara is inspiring to Jenni: 

'She'd coped with her memories, in silence, and despite her sadness had made a good life for herself. I needed to do the same.'

I was impressed by this novel, it was a fascinating, absorbing and well-researched read with the historical and present day aspects combining well, and with two engaging, resilient lead female characters, the kind of story that will linger in my mind. I loved the beautiful book cover design which fitted the story very well. The title is fitting; as well as Jenni's career, there are the ghosts of the past in both women's lives which still haunt them.

Thank you to the author for kindly sending me a copy of this novel for an honest review. 

Author links - twitter @IsabelWolff | facebook 

Published by HarperCollins


  1. Lovely review, Lindsay. This book sounds really interesting and just the sort of thing I've been looking for recently.

  2. Great review Lindsay.

    This one sounds good. I also know little about Indonesia in this time period so that in of itself is interesting. I also like the entire psychology of the ghost writer that seems to be built into the plot.


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