Book review: The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies
The nights are drawing in and it’s time to seek out a sizzling saga to bring back the sunshine and sweep you off your feet.
And if you like your novels to be a cut above the rest, look no further than The Tea Planter’s Wife, a beautiful, haunting story packed with mystery, suspense and romance, and all set in the heat and colour of 1920s colonial Ceylon.
Dinah Jefferies, who was born in Malaysia and made waves with last year’s stunning debut novel The Separation set in 1950s Malaya, heads East again for this gripping, emotion-packed tale of a young English bride catapulted into a world she doesn’t understand and a country on the cusp of social and political change.
Along the way, she will meet jealousy, betrayal, untold secrets, corrosive guilt and heartbreaking choices that challenge her instincts as a mother and expose both the fragility of love and its redemptive power.
It’s 1925 and 19-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper has had a sense of lingering unease since she left her parents’ home in Gloucestershire to join her new husband Laurence, a 37-year-old widower who owns a tea plantation in Ceylon.
By the time she steps off the steamer in Colombo, Gwen has rekindled her sense of optimism and is eager to join the kind, sensitive husband she barely knows but is certain she loves.
But the man who takes her to his tea plantation is not the same one she fell in love with at a musical soirée in London. Distant, brooding and uncommunicative, Laurence spends his days wrapped up in his work and his evenings avoiding his wife.
Gwen is left alone to explore the plantation and finds it full of clues to a past that Laurence refuses to talk about… locked doors, a yellowed wedding veil in a dusty trunk and an overgrown grave hidden in the grounds.
Despite the warmth of her personal maid Naveena and the attentions of handsome local artist Savi Ravasinghe, Gwen is troubled by the presence of Laurence’s possessive and clinging younger sister Verity, American widow Christina Bradshaw who seems suspiciously close to Laurence and local attitudes towards an increasingly resentful Tamil workforce.
When she falls pregnant, Laurence is overjoyed but, in the delivery room, disaster strikes and Gwen faces a terrible choice. Forced to bury a terrible secret, she erects a protective wall around herself, fully aware that one day it could crumble and tear apart the fabric of her new life…
The Tea Planter’s Wife has to be one of the best historical novels of 2015, a brilliantly atmospheric and resonant story full of superbly drawn characters, vivid, authentic detail, nail-biting suspense and gut-wrenching emotion.
Jefferies captures all the exciting exoticism of colonial Ceylon, its fusion of masters and workers, rich and poor, cinnamon and jasmine, light and shade, but without losing sight of the inherent racism and decaying colonialism that make the political backdrop to this very human drama so palpably tense and dangerous.
The portrayal of Gwen, an innocent abroad, isolated, culturally adrift and forced to grow up fast, is one of the most impressive features of a captivating Eastern odyssey which plays out against purple hills, cobalt skies and scorching heat.
Moving, gripping and gloriously multi-faceted, this is a story that seduces both the mind and the heart. Don’t miss it!
(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)