Monday 14 April 2014


Book review: Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff

My edition: paperback, published on 27 March 2014 by Harper, 361 pages.

Description: 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.

Jenni has an exciting new commission, and is delighted to start working on the memoirs of a Dutch woman, Klara. As a child in the Second World War, Klara was interned in a camp on Java during the Japanese occupation – she has an extraordinary story of survival to tell.

But as Jenni and Klara begin to get to know each other, Jenni begins to do much more than shed light on a neglected part of history. She is being forced to examine her own devastating memories, too. But with Klara's help, perhaps this is finally the moment where she will be able to lay the ghosts of her own past to rest?


Jenni Clark loves writing but not being in the spotlight, so ghostwriting other people's stories provides the perfect creative outlet for her. It also gives her the opportunity to get up close and personal to the people she studies and learn something new along the way. Through an acquaintance she's put in touch with an elderly Dutch woman by the name of Klara with the opportunity to write the older woman's memoirs. Now living in South Cornwall, Klara spent her childhood years in the Dutch East Indies; first on a big plantation and later in various internment camps across Java during the Japanese occupation. Her story while incredibly harrowing is also a fascinating one.

Admittedly Ghostwritten wasn't on my radar until the author contacted me with the question if I'd like a copy for review, but this is exactly the kind of novel I enjoy reading (though perhaps, enjoy isn't the right word to use in this instance). Author Isabel Wolff has taken a subject that I knew shamefully little about at the start of the book (and being Dutch myself I really should've been more informed about it) and turned it into a vivid piece of history that I can now not let go of.

The novel has an incredible sense of place, transporting the reader from rural England to the tropical heat of Java as soon as Klara starts telling her moving story. At the start of the novel I could see the lush plantation appear before my eyes, with Klara and her friends playing in the sunshine and enjoying this thus far idyllic exotic location. But of course their happiness doesn't last long and her family is soon torn apart as the Japanese occupy her home and she is sent to an internment camp with her mother and little brother.

The journey that follows is equal parts fascinating and horrifying. As so many children caught in a war she's forced to see and do horrible things and grow up far quicker than she should have otherwise, her childhood disappearing as soon as she sets foot in the first camp. Interspersed with Klara's recount of the Japanese occupation is the story of Jenni. Despite being decades and continents apart there is an eerie similarity between the two women's lives and not only are Klara's memories enriching for both Jenni and the reader alike, but they also help Jenni to finally face a horrible secret from her own past.

I'm in awe with this amazing novel. Hugely gripping both in the present and past storylines and incredibly realistic, Wolff's descriptions of Klara's life in Java are immensely detailed and vivid. Despite having never been there myself, I now feel a sense of connection to the place. I don't read a huge amount of historical fiction, but now and again I come across a gem like this and I ask myself, why not?

This beautiful, harrowing and ultimately extremely moving novel mesmerised me from the start. It was hugely educational as well and for that alone I cannot recommend it highly enough. If like me your history lessons in school have mainly focussed on how the second world war affected Europe, this will certainly be a heart-breaking eye-opener.

You can purchase a copy of the novel from Waterstones,, or your own preferred retailer.

Would you like to know more about the author? You can connect with her online at:



Twitter: @IsabelWolff

Many thanks to the author for providing a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.

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