THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE
Author: Ellen Sussman
Constable & Robinson RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
So what happens when the troubles of the world descend on paradise?
A book that kept me awake long past my bedtime, The Paradise Guest House is a poignant novel of hope and healing that shows why author Ellen Sussman was right to persevere with writing ‘through praise and piles of rejection letters’. It was slow to start, but before I knew it, I was sucked in and riveted to the end. And halfway through, I cried. Coming in at under 300 pages, it’s not a long book so that’s one reason it’s a quick read; the other is that the writing is so smooth that it carries the reader through some incredibly sad scenes (and graphic), urging them towards its hopeful conclusion.
Adventure guide Jamie is sent on a trip to paradise; with her boyfriend, Miguel, at her side, she imagines spending weeks exploring Bali’s lush jungles and pristine white sand beaches. Three days after her arrival, she is caught in Bali’s infamous nightclub bombings. The story begins a year later, when Jamie returns to Bali, seeking a sense of closure; still haunted by memories, flashbacks, dreams and regrets, she’s hesitant and scared, but determined to be there for the one-year memorial ceremony. She also has another reason – to find Gabe, the man who saved her life and helped her in the days that followed. Arriving in Bali, she stays with Nyoman, a Balinese host who lost his wife in the bombings, and meets Bambang, a street boy, who she initially dismisses as a pest, but later finds that he is crucial to her search for Gabe. Finding Gabe is just the beginning though. He’s not as pleased to see her as she is to find him.
At this point, the story shifts into Gabe’s perspective, which takes the reader back 2002 and the bombings, his meeting with Jamie and their stay in a friend’s guesthouse while she recovers from her injuries. Gabe has come to Bali to deal with his own losses and past – Bali is for him a place of new beginnings, but also a place where he can keep the world at bay. I love this quote where he admits that’s where his mind is at: ‘Maybe she didn’t want to see the world, he thought. And then he knew it must be true, because he, too, wanted to be somewhere else. Not in the world. Protected from the world‘. Bali is supposed to be a paradise where people can cast away their troubles … and now in the wake of a national disaster, Gabe finds a new sense of uncertainty about life. Meeting Jamie, recognising a similar vulnerability in her (despite an tough exterior), draws out long-buried feelings … and the recognition that it’s OK to feel.
The final third of the story picks up when Jamie and Gabe meet again. They’ve found each other, but now what? As the Balinese community struggles to rebuild itself, can they too rebuild themselves? And is there any future for them? Or is that a challenge far too difficult?
Although I’ve never been to Bali, I remember the shock and horror as news of the bombings emerged in 2002. Sussman’s description of these events is as emotive as it is compelling; as the events unfolded, I was taken into the action, my cheeks stained with silent tears as I felt the fear and adrenaline of Gabe and Jamie as they fought to save the lives of others. It’s riveting reading, because you want to know what happens next, but it’s rooted in such sadness. What follows, as the community takes stock of what has happened and tries to come to terms with a much-changed Bali, is compassionately written, conveying the acute sense of loss felt by all involved. As Gabe shares this part of the story, his backstory comes to the fore, with memories blending in with what’s happening at the time – it sounds confusing, but it adds depth and poignancy, and accurately reflects what happens in thought processes. Something happens, another memory is triggered and so on. That’s how we think, so I had no problem with the slightly disjointed feel it had at times.
It’s not only the description of the bombings that stands out. Sussman creates a sense of place that opens up Bali for those who, like me, have never been there (and awakens a sense of familiarity for those who have). From the scenery to the people and their culture, Sussman’s descriptions bring the reader to an understanding of why people like Gabe find it so hard to leave (and why people like my work colleague keep going back). Her language is simple and fresh, not overdone, demonstrating her talent with words.
I enjoy books that make me feel, and that’s what The Paradise Guest House did. I liked the complex characters – weak and strong at the same time; I liked the sensitive, but not glossed over, descriptions; and I liked how the themes of hope, healing and renewal, belonging, and second chances (whether through reincarnation or choice) were delivered. The insight to how a shattered community restores itself was thought-provoking. Overall, an enjoyable and thoughtful read that makes me want to read more from Sussman. If you liked Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, you’ll probably like this.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: Pineapple. It just popped into my head. Not sure if it was thoughts of the tropical climate in Bali … or the pineapple juice I just reached for, only to find that it was empty!