A Better Life – Isobel Scharen
Searching and surviving in the face of uncertainty.
A Better Life is the epic, evocative and engaging debut book by Isobel Scharen, highly-recommended for readers looking for the perfect blend of drama, history, romance and adventure.
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Ada, a young Englishwoman in early-1940s Singapore, is due to marry Michael, a well-educated Anglo-Indian from a wealthy family. She dreams of a life of security and fulfilment. But, when the Japanese invade, her family struggle to cope under occupation, while she is interned in Changi gaol. Separated from her baby daughter and her beloved Michael, she needs all her will-power to survive. After the war, desperate to protect her child, Ada leaves Singapore for New Zealand in search of a better life only to experience prejudice and unkindness. This moving and engaging story is an insightful depiction of the horrors of war, a mother’s bond with her child and the momentous challenge of rebuilding one’s life in peace-time. A challenge which requires, above all, self-belief, the capacity to forgive and the courage to love again.
This outstanding first novel embraces weighty themes of marriage, motherhood and multi-cultural relationships along with the horrors of war, prison and forced separation. Complementing its rich storyline, A Better Life is well-constructed to reflect two distinct and contrasting countries and contexts. As the enthralling story progresses, the vibrant, colourful yet increasingly unsafe Singapore is juxtaposed with the raw promise that New Zealand offers the central character.
In Part One, Ada lives in pre- and post-war Singapore experiencing, at first, a life of luxury followed by a campaign of terror as Japan invades the country. In Part Two, Ada moves to the more open and welcoming New Zealand, introduced to the Maori culture but is challenged again, attempting to settle into unknown territory. The author skilfully criss-crosses between these differing countries with cultural descriptions, local dialogue and historic drama:
“This overlooked waste land, and on the far side a Malay kampong, the thatched roofs of the huts partly screened from view by a fringe of king coconut trees. Ada could see a group of children from the kampong splashing one another in the rusty puddles. A few were chasing a ball, some racing beyond it simply for the pleasure of running. She heard their shouts and laughter and thought how she would miss them.”
“Ada read the letter to him and showed him the photo. He nodded, and said immediately, “You should go to New Zealand. As soon as you can. I’ll pay your fares, and maintain you and Beth. It will be the best thing you can do to go, Ada. This is not the country it was before the war and might never be again.” She looked helplessly at him. She was not ready for more change. And spirits did not cross water.”
“The flying boat had landed in a large bay, a wide expanse of smoky blue where sea and sky were blended with mist. The bay was banked with hills smothered in pines, and bushy shrubs specked with yellow, amongst which were dotted red and green-roofed houses. She recalled noting how quiet it was in the terminal building. There were a few cries of welcome and
a rush to embrace, but the emotion was soon hidden away in intimate groupings. Not a hawker in sight, not a single outburst of raucous laughter or loud chatter, not a sign of tears. This was a moderate country, temperate, with everyone behaving civilly, always. No bombs, no killings, no looting.”
Such a constantly moving narrative adds further layers to the book’s dimensions, leaving readers with a vivid portrayal of life during the 1940s as Ada navigates fresh challenges, emotional upheaval and evolving times. Throughout the book, the author’s lifelike descriptions and accurate dialogue enhance the story, capturing Ada’s diverse experiences from the gloom of her Changi Gaol internment to her struggle adapting to her new life and love. Readers embrace Ada as she weaves her way down this unsettled path, flitting from despair to hope, yet constantly in search of the elusive ‘better’.
A Better Life is a superbly written and an absorbing page-turner. Teasing its audience with optimism, the book invites readers to root for Ada, a heroine on a thrilling journey to not just survive but to make her life better: “We must put the past behind us and look forward to a better life,” she said, recognising that they each had a different view of what that better life might be.”
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A Better Life is available to order from Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk).
“A beautifully written and moving story which both evocatively captures the time and places in which it’s set and also poignantly resonates with now… It’s a story of hope for those who feel they don’t belong. Loved It!”
“This is a novel that both holds the attention and also leaves the reader with a lot to think about. A warmly-recommended and very original take on World War II and its legacy.”
“A book that absorbs the reader and carries you along with the action.”
“It is extremely well-written, developed sure-footedly and the characters are superbly observed. The ending is particularly effective, optimistic despite everything Ada had been through, and warming.”
“In this striking book, we are let to consider what is ‘a better life’ through other universal questions that become personal for Ada and thought-provoking for the reader.”
Price: £8.42 (Paperback); £5.34 (Kindle Edition)
Published: M-Y Books Ltd (January 2020)
About the Author
Isobel Scharen was born in Singapore, where she was adopted by a mixed-race couple. She was educated in New Zealand before settling in England. She now divides her time between London and Bristol. A Better Life is her first novel.