Writing is generally viewed as a profession that reveals much about the individual. Even fiction writers are asked time and again about parallels of their fiction to their own lives. In Jenni’s case, however, her career as a writer helps her subsume her own memories of a childhood tragedy. She is a ghostwriter, and in exploring other people’s stories and in taking on their own voices, she is able, for the most part, to forget a bit of her own story.
That changes when she agrees to write the memoir of a survivor from a Japanese internment camp in Java. The subject, Klara, lives near the same beach where Jenni’s own childhood tragedy has occurred. Worse, Klara’s story holds some disquieting parallels to Jenni’s own experience, and forces Jenni to reexamine her past.
Isabel Wolff’s Ghostwritten isn’t an easy story to read. Klara’s tale in particular is filled with violence and horror. Wolff doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the more gruesome aspects of these internment camps, and the tale is an eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the history of the Japanese occupation in Gaza. Especially difficult to read are tales of prisoners who turn on other prisoners, either to escape punishment or to receive some form of special treatment for the guards.
The moment when we learn the decision that has haunted Klara all her life is heartrending, and while Jenni’s response is the right one, it also feels much too inadequate. Klara’s grief over this act is all too real and understandable, and to be fair, no response would likely have been enough to make her fully get over it.
Paling in comparison to Klara’s story is Jenni’s. Her struggle to come to terms with her own childhood tragedy is touching enough, but the parallel to Klara’s story just feels forced. The interweaving of the stories feels orchestrated, which is especially egregious when compared to the depth of emotion in Klara’s story. Jenni does indeed have her own demons to contend with, but I found myself skimming over her sections, and being impatient with her reluctance to open up.
Klara’s story is told ostensibly as a plot device to help the protagonist fulfill her own character arc, but Klara ends up stealing the show. There are some subplots within her tale that I wish I’d learned more about — the story about the neighbourhood bully and his mother, for example, and a star crossed romance between two of Klara’s neighbours — and I wish Wolff had focused more on this part of the novel.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.