Review – The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

By | September 7, 2015

Nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper steps off a steamer in Ceylon full of optimism, eager to join her new husband. But the man who greets her at the tea plantation is not the same one she fell in love with in London.

Distant and brooding, Laurence spends long days wrapped up in his work, leaving his young bride to explore the plantation alone. It’s a place filled with clues to the past – locked doors, a yellowed wedding dress in a dusty trunk, an overgrown grave hidden in the grounds, far too small for an adult…

Gwen soon falls pregnant and her husband is overjoyed, but she has little time to celebrate. In the delivery room the new mother is faced with a terrible choice, one she knows no one in her upper class set will understand – least of all Laurence. Forced to bury a secret at the heart of her marriage, Gwen is more isolated than ever. When the time comes, how will her husband ever understand what she has done?

The Tea Planter’s Wife is a story of guilt, betrayal and untold secrets vividly and entrancingly set in colonial era Ceylon.

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies was published by Penguin on 3rd September in paperback and for Kindle. I was so looking forward to reading it, having thoroughly enjoyed Dinah’s first book The Separation last year (here’s my review). Just as I finished, setting it aside with a sigh at leaving the world that had totally enveloped me as I read, the news broke that the book had been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club. I can totally understand that decision – this book was simply wonderful, and it’s going to be an immense best seller.

You’re drawn in from the very first pages – Ceylon in 1913, and an unidentified mother, clearly in turmoil, packing away baby clothes in an ottoman before walking away. We then move to 1925, and pick up the story of Gwen, arriving in Ceylon by steamer to join her new husband on his tea plantation. I’ve rarely read a book that immerses you so completely in its setting, from the point that she steps ashore – through Gwen’s eyes, we immediately feel the exotic and the unfamiliar, and as the story builds the author’s wonderful descriptions mean you experience the setting with all your senses. You see the vivid detail, feel the steamy and stifling heat and atmosphere, hear the birdsong and the chattering animals, inhale the spices and the flowers – this is quite exceptional writing. 

Feeling through the senses is central to the way I enjoyed this book – as well as the external, you feel Gwen’s bewilderment, confusion, share in her unbearably difficult decisions, face her challenges with her. She’s a superbly drawn and sympathetic character – you might not agree with everything she does, but you love and understand her, and at so many points within this wonderful story your heart will break for her. Every supporting character is equally well drawn: her husband Laurence, her cousin Fran, the exotic and intriguing Savi, McGregor the overseer, the ayah Naveena, Lawrence’s sister Verity, and every child, every village dweller, even the dogs who share their home. 

And the story – it twists and turns, has you feverishly turning the pages, makes you stop reading at times because it’s so unbearably sad, but then makes you pick it up again immediately because you simply must know what happens next. When I reviewed The Separation, I summed it up as “a gripping and emotional read, full of atmosphere and exotic detail, with a rattling good story”. I was looking forward to reading more from Dinah Jefferies, but really didn’t expect that her second book could be even better. But it is – I absolutely loved it. And yes, I AM going to say it – one of my books of the year, without a moment’s shadow of doubt.

My thanks to netgalley and publishers Penguin for my advance reading e-copy.

Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaya in 1948 and moved to England at the age of nine. In 1985, the sudden death of her fourteen year old son changed the course of her life, and deeply influenced her writing. Dinah drew on that experience, and on her own childhood spent in Malaya during the 1950s to write her debut novel, The Separation.  Now living in Gloucestershire with her husband and slightly overweight Norfolk terrier, she spends her days writing, with time off to make tiaras and dinosaurs with her grandchildren.

Dinah has an excellent website where you can find out more about the author and her books, and join her readers’ club: she can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, and has a quite wonderful board on Pinterest where you can see the photographs from her research for The Tea Planter’s Wife.

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