“The Paradise Guest House” (Ballantine Books), by Ellen Sussman
The tranquil beauty of beachside Bali is the alluring backdrop for “The Paradise Guest House,” and Jamie Hyde, a plucky and passionate adventure guide, is the delectable heroine at the novel’s heart.
But while the book may be escapist romantic fiction set in an exotic locale, it is framed by the searing trauma of the 2002 terrorist bombings at two Bali nightclubs, a chaotic, central event in the narrative. For Jamie, as well as for Gabe Winters, the man who finds her amid the fiery bombing rubble, this is no easy trip.
For both, the search for love has been marred by the pain of loss.
Author Ellen Sussman opens the story with Jamie, an American, returning to Bali in 2003 for the anniversary of the bombing, uncertain of her own emotions and hoping to find Gabe. In fragments of flashback and reflection, Jamie’s need to reconnect with Gabe, who teaches at a local school, begins to become clear. Later his own fractured feelings — about love, about Jamie — come into focus as well.
On her return to Bali for anniversary events, Jamie stays in a small cottage amid lush tropical foliage at an inn named The Paradise Guest House. It is run by a kind Balinese man, Nyoman, who lost his wife in the bombing. Through him, Sussman brings out elements of the island’s culture and sense of community.
It is at another cottage, however, that paradise for Jamie and Gabe seems a possibility. This is a secluded beach house, with a wrap-around porch, a Buddha statue in a verdant patio garden and six French doors that open to the soft island winds. A friend let Gabe use it to help Jamie heal after the bombing. But healing, like paradise, can be elusive.
The pace of the novel can be slow at times, and the frequent shifting between past and present events may muddle the plot for some. Jamie and Gabe also voice their angst a hint too much as they reflect on what they did or didn’t do in times of crisis.
But “The Paradise Guest House,” while crafted around a horrific event, is a good-hearted book, respectful of its subject matter. And with well-drawn, genuinely likable lead characters, it takes readers on an edgy island adventure over memorable emotional terrain.