The Other Side of Paradise by Margaret Mayhew

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Margaret Mayhew has taken the fall of Singapore in 1942 as the setting for her latest romantic novel. The tumultuous invasion provides an exciting backdrop that won't disappoint her fans.

Susan, the heroine, is an indulged eighteen-year-old. Her life revolves around a colonial lifestyle unchanged despite the Second World War raging all round. Most of the Brits living in Singapore despise the Japanese and disparage their fighting abilities. It's only as Japanese bombs start falling that a few of the more realistic ones start prophesying gloom and doom.

Hunky Australian doctor Ray goads Susan into driving an ambulance (it's a masterstroke to combine the dramatic patina of war with a white-coat romance). Shortly after, Susan shows her spunkiness (or maybe it's adolescent stroppiness) by refusing to depart for the safety of Australia. In a few pages, normal life cascades as she finds herself taking on two orphaned children; is torpedoed and shipwrecked; swims through shark-infested seas with children in tow and lands among crocodile-infested mangrove swamps. There is worse yet to come, as the native islanders turn the three over to occupying Japanese forces. In spite of this unpromising turn of events – in a romantic sense, that is – the happy ending unfolds in a series of coincidences.

Margaret Mayhew is admired for her sure-footed atmospheric writing. The Prologue appeared so authentic, that I wondered if Margaret Mayhew is writing about her own childhood. But no, this is a much older Susan, writing in the first person. Oddly, the rest of the story is told in the third person. In the first part, pre-Occupation Singapore glows with vivid detail, from Raffles Hotel to the Chinese quarter, from army officers to servants. We even tiptoe behind Susan as she takes a clandestine tour round the Governor's private rooms.

Susan has been bred with a stiff upper lip and the understated emotion of the writing feels like the right voice for the period. The frequently-voiced prejudice against the Japanese made me squirm, but again, it has an authentic ring.

I didn't find the same immediacy in the second half of the book, although I won't spill the beans about the exact details. Perhaps too much of this three year period is covered by straight narration, which left me feeling distanced. A pitfall of Epics, I agree, but I would happily have read a longer story with more showing and less telling. I couldn't help an unfavourable comparison with the classic A Town Like Alice.

Susan lands on her feet, as the novel rushes towards its happy-ever-after finale. For me, the long arm of coincidence is over-stretched and the ending far too neat. It's as if Susan suffers so much, the kind-hearted author can't bear to thwart her heroine any more. On the other hand, I enjoyed much of the book and can recommend it as an undemanding read. This is a war story that won't stir up too many nightmares.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publisher for sending us The Other Side of Paradise.

The Bookbag has also reviewed Margaret Dickinson's Sing as We Go, Charlotte Bingham's Goodnight Sweetheart and Eliza Graham's Playing with the Moon.

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