Here be hidden depths
The past is never dead. It isn’t even the past.” So wrote William Faulkner in Requiem For A Nun (1950) and such are the words chosen by Isabel Wolff as an introductory quotation to her latest novel, Ghostwritten.
Faulkner’s point, so beautifully expressed, is that the past never goes away. The past forms us and makes us, and is inescapable. Whatever has happened has happened, and sublimate it as we try, it has a habit of reappearing, not always at convenient moments, in our futures. TS Eliot famously took this one step further in Burnt Norton, one of his Four Quartets: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past./If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.”
Too true. But it is redemption of perhaps a slightly different kind from Eliot’s that lingers on the fringes of Ghostwritten. Wolff’s book offers two protagonists, both of whom have pasts that need to be expiated.
Can confession achieve redemption? Psychoanalysis would have us believe so, and telling your story to someone else is the basis of psychoanalysis. So using the device of a ghostwriter, Wolff sets us up with the stories of Jenni Clark and Klara Tregear, respectively a young writer in the grip of a relationship crisis and a woman of 79 who would like to record the memorable events of her life.
The idea is that Klara will talk through the events she wishes to record and Jenni will turn them into a book for Klara’s 80th birthday. All very straightforward – except that Klara lives in a tiny village in Cornwall, which was the scene of a traumatic childhood incident that has blighted Jenni’s adult life, and is on the verge of destroying her cherished relationship with her partner Rick.
Two intertwining stories is a well tried and tested technique in fiction writing, but it always runs the risk of producing an imbalance if one story holds more interest for the reader than the other. To a limited extent this held true for me in this book, although I'm not going to tell you which of the stories gripped me more. My preference may well not be yours! The majority of the book, however, deals with Klara’s story and it will have a “near to home” feel about it for Malaysian readers.
Klara’s family leave Holland to become rubber planters in Dutch Indonesia. At first they live the pleasant, privileged life of typical mat salleh planter families. They have a nice house, they have staff, and Klara and her brother have all the trappings of a happy childhood. But one important difference is that Klara’s family integrate much better with the local Indonesians than many of the other planters.
Brewing in the background during this period of the late 1930s and early 1940s is the war in Europe. It seems remote to Klara’s family, cocooned in what they believe to be the security of the tropics. “As children we were vaguely aware that war was coming to Europe – a place that, to us, seemed so remote it might as well have been on another planet.”
And so it might have remained had it not been for Pearl Harbour and Japan’s entry into World War II. Slowly, inexorably, the Japanese army moves into the heartlands of Indonesia. Initially, they leave the planters alone, but it's not long before they are incarcerated behind barbed wire. Klara’s father is sent in one direction, her mother and the children are sent in another. Life in the camps is grim, with death, starvation, torture and brutality commonplace. These are hell holes on earth, and it is in one particularly hellish episode that the growing Klara is forced to make a decision that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
As Klara tells her story, Jenni battles her own demons. Drawn back to the place that scarred her childhood, Klara’s story, and her bravery and honesty in telling it, act as a catalyst for Jenni to revisit and to some extent come to terms with her own trauma.
Ghostwritten is a very good read, compelling and persuasive. I started this review by quoting Faulkner and Eliot, both of whom can be tough reading. But Ghostwritten is anything but. Without literary pretensions of any sort, it is, nonetheless, well researched, vivid and engaging.
To be quite honest, there was more depth here than I would have guessed from the first few pages, and almost despite myself, I found myself drawn into Isabel Wolff’s world. This is a book that reads lightly, but lurking in its shadows are some deeper and more profound concerns.