The Bungalow
Sarah Jio
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Buy *The Bungalow* by Sarah Jio online

The Bungalow
Sarah Jio
320 pages
December 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This tender romance tracks the life of World War II nurse Anne Calloway and her time working on the island of Bora-Bora, where her world threatens to collapse under the weight of a terrible, brutal secret. An unexpected letter jumpstarts Anne’s memories as she ruminates on her life so far and how she has come to live in this tiny Seattle apartment with its stark white walls.

Anne has spent the majority of her existence searching in vain for a painting she once had in her hands. She’s haunted by the painting’s link to this letter, which tells of a horrific murder that occurred on a quiet stretch of beach one evening in 1943. As memories gnaw at Anne like fleas in the bedclothes, her heart feels familiar pain when she thinks of handsome Westry and their passionate time together in their isolated beach-side bungalow.

Anne long ago set her secrets free, but as she recalls those muggy nights “with the stars so close you could touch them,” she also remembers how the destruction of war lurked around every corner. Anne comes from privilege, but she’s also liberated and inquisitive with a clear sense of self-worth that sets her apart from other women. Rather than marry tall and impossibly handsome Gerard Godfrey, the son of a wealthy bank manager, she takes her newly-minted nursing degree and joins Kitty in Bora-Bora, escaping from a life at home and the decisions that plague her.

As Anne, Kitty, and the rest of the team settle into working life organized by officious and emotionally distant charge nurse Constance Hilderbrand, the harsh heat and suffocating humidity--and the rumors of the cannibal colonies existing not far from the base--do little to stop the girls from flirting with the lonely soldiers. It’s not surprising that Anne is drawn to bookish Westry, with his blond, wispy hair and sun-kissed skin dusted with freckles.

From a brutal crime that Anne and Westry both witness to the mystery of a painting‘s provenance, the emotional scars of Kitty's betrayal drape over Anne like armor. From the bungalow and the painting comes both a warning and a curse, while Anne’s love for Westry--undoubtedly the novel’s guiding force--makes her fully complicit in the terrible silence that grows between them. Anne’s memories of that night come swirling back: even though she knows she and Westry did not commit the crime, she continues to be plagued with the fear that they may be considered guilty.

Most of what follows is pretty much literary cliché, but Jio does an admirable job of reminding us of the collective nightmare of war and the blood, misery and pain of these men who are often reduced to children in their suffering. I see this novel as basically formulaic women’s romance fiction in which the astute reader will recognize the endlessly repeated variations on the same narrative pattern.

We accept that bloody and horrible things are going to happen to Anne, but Jio’s métier demands a satisfactory outcome despite all of her heroine’s struggles along the way. In a story that haunts with the weathered remains of the bungalow, Jio pretty much guarantees the good will find redemption and that the bad will be punished--even in death.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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