Palo Alto Weekly

- April 5, 2013

Paradise lost and found

Ellen Sussman's new novel explores closure and connection amidst a real-life tragedy

by Karla Kane

"The Paradise Guest House," by Ellen Sussman; Ballantine Books; 258 pages; $15

In the autumn of 2002, members of an Islamist terrorist group detonated three bombs in a tourist district on the Indonesian island of Bali. Hundreds were injured and 202 were killed, including seven Americans.

"The Paradise Guest House," local author Ellen Sussman's latest novel, follows the lives of several fictional characters who've been irreparably impacted by the Balinese nightclub bombings.

For much of the novel, the leading protagonist is Jamie, a 32-year-old Californian who works as an adventure guide for a Berkeley-based travel company. Jamie was visiting Bali with her Chilean boyfriend, scouting out potential tour opportunities, when she was caught up in the terrorist attacks. After risking her life to help fellow victims and suffering injury, she was rescued by Gabe, an American ex-pat, and the two quickly formed a strong bond, only to lose each other soon after. One year later, Jamie, still traumatized by her experience, returns to Bali to seek closure, attend a memorial ceremony, confront her haunting memories and, she hopes, find Gabe.

In flashbacks, the reader learns of Jamie's childhood in Palo Alto (including references to local establishments such as the Stanford Park Hotel); how her father installed in her a love of adventure and then abandoned the family, leaving Jamie unwilling or unable to settle down; her overprotective but loving mother; her dissolving relationship with her beau, the doomed Miguel; and her close paternal relationship to her boss, Larson. When the book switches back to the present, Jamie meets her kindly Balinese host Nyoman (the owner of the titular guest house), who also suffered greatly in the attacks of the previous year, as well as the mischievous urchin Bambang, both of whom will help her make her peace with the stunningly beautiful but now tragedy-tainted island.

Midway through, the book's perspective shifts to that of Gabe. In a similar mix of flashback and contemporary narrative we discover Gabe's history as a Boston journalist and how family grief led him to leave the U.S. for a relaxed life as an elementary school teacher in Bali. Though he's closed off his heart due to his past losses, and Jamie's plagued by guilt over her survival in the face of others' deaths, the two find their defenses dropping as their connection deepens.

"The Paradise Guest House," with its blend of romance, adventure, action and history, could easily work as a motion picture, so don't be surprised to see it someday at a theater near you.

Sussman is an effective writer who keeps the plot developing at a quick pace. When (spoiler alert) Jamie and Gabe finally have their long-awaited reunion the emotional payoff is sweet. Her dialogue is occasionally clunky, especially when an Indonesian is comparing Balinese and Western culture, but on the whole the book is a pleasure to devour easily in a short period of time. It feels a bit wrong to use words such as "pleasure," "beach book" and so forth when the story deals with such tragic true events but, strange though it may seem, the gripping story nonetheless will make excellent summer reading.

It is to Sussman's credit that a book about a traveler's trip gone so very wrong still made me wish to travel to Bali. She captures Jamie's adventurous spirit and wanderlust and paints an affectionate picture of Bali as a place, though troubled by corruption, poverty and Western exploitation, well worthy of investigation.

At its heart, "The Paradise Guest House" is a lovely little novel about human connection in the face of humanity at its very worst. Since the bombings in Bali happened relatively quickly on the heels of the massive Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and on the other side of the world, American readers may not remember or know much of the events, and the novel serves as a poignant tribute and reminder to the lives lost and/or damaged in this faraway not-quite paradise.

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