I love Dinah Jefferies’ books; they always have such interesting settings. So far they have taken me to 1950s French Indochina (The Silk Merchant’s Daughter), Malaya during the Emergency of 1955 (The Separation) and 1920s Ceylon (The Tea Planter’s Wife). Her new novel, The Sapphire Widow, takes us back to Ceylon again but the story this time is quite different.
It’s 1935 and Louisa Reeve is grieving for her stillborn daughter, one of several miscarriages and stillbirths she has suffered over the years. She should be able to rely on her husband Elliot for support, but Elliot has become withdrawn and distant, spending more and more of his time visiting a nearby cinnamon plantation in which he says he has bought shares. When he tells her about his latest business venture – converting an old Print House into a shop trading in jewels and spices – Louisa feels more optimistic. It will be something they can work on together – and if they could only have another child, surely their marriage will survive.
Sadly, Louisa will never know what the future might have held for the two of them, because Elliot is killed in a tragic accident. Before she has even begun to come to terms with losing him, she makes a series of shocking discoveries that leave her questioning whether she ever really knew her husband at all. Hoping to find answers at Cinnamon Hills, she only uncovers more lies and secrets, but when she meets Leo, the plantation owner, and a little boy called Conor, she begins to find the strength to move on.
I think The Sapphire Widow could be my favourite of the four Dinah Jefferies novels I’ve read. It was lovely to return to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was then) and a nice surprise to be reacquainted with characters from The Tea Planter’s Wife, which I hadn’t expected! Although this book doesn’t explore the history and politics of 1920s/30s Ceylon in the way that the earlier book did, it doesn’t really need to because this is a different type of story. Unlike Gwen in The Tea Planter’s Wife, Louisa doesn’t have the same level of interaction with people of different backgrounds and beliefs; her story revolves around Elliot’s lies, her constant battles with her mother-in-law Irene, and the relationships that are beginning to form with Leo and with Conor.
This doesn’t mean that the setting is any less wonderful, of course! Dinah Jefferies writes so beautifully about Ceylon, bringing each location to life as the action moves between the coastal city of Galle, the capital Colombo and the cinnamon plantation where Leo lives. The characters are great too. I loved Louisa and really admired her patience with the interfering Irene, for whom Elliot can do no wrong and Louisa can do no right. I was glad that Louisa had a good friend in her sister-in-law Margo, who helps her through this difficult time despite the problems she is experiencing in her own personal life.
I really enjoyed The Sapphire Widow and will look forward to whatever Dinah Jefferies writes next. Meanwhile, I need to go back and read Before the Rains, her novel set in India in the 1930s. I’m not sure how I still haven’t read that one!
Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.