Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies

After six novels set in Asia, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed, Dinah Jefferies has recently switched her focus to Europe during World War II. Last year’s The Tuscan Contessa was set in 1940s Italy; her new book, Daughters of War, is the first in a new trilogy set in wartime France.

It’s 1944 and France is occupied by the Nazis. In a cottage in the Dordogne live three sisters, all in their twenties, who are each doing their best to protect themselves and their friends and neighbours and to ensure that they all survive the war. Hélène, the eldest, took on the responsibility of caring for the other two after their father died and their mother departed for England, and as well as trying to look after her little family, she also works as a nurse alongside the village doctor. Élise is the rebellious and daring sister, the one who is determined to do whatever she can to help the Resistance, whether that is hiding weapons in the cottage grounds or intercepting and passing on messages. Finally there’s Florence, the innocent and kind-hearted dreamer, who is always happiest when she is at home, spending time in the kitchen or the garden.

As the Occupation continues and liberation still seems like a distant dream, the sisters are faced with a series of important decisions to make. Should they give shelter to Tomas, a deserter from the German army? Can they trust Jack, a British SOE soldier who arrives injured at the cottage one night, asking for help? All they can do is follow their instincts and try to find a balance between keeping themselves safe and working to regain France’s freedom. Along the way, each of the sisters has her own set of personal challenges to overcome, family secrets are exposed and the bonds between the three of them are tested. As the first in a trilogy, not everything is resolved in this book, but the foundations are laid for the characters and ideas to be developed further in the second and third novels.

The book is written from the perspectives of all three sisters; we spend a few chapters with one, then a few chapters with another. I felt the closest to Hélène, although each of the sisters is a strongly drawn character with a distinct personality of her own. Élise has potentially the most exciting storylines, but I would have liked to have read about her activities with the Resistance in more detail – they are skimmed over quite quickly and I thought this was a missed opportunity. I also found it unconvincing that the sisters are so ready to trust and confide in everyone they meet, even when it appears that someone around them might be a traitor; I would have expected them to have shown more caution.

Those are the negatives, but there were also plenty of positives; I particularly loved the descriptions of the beautiful countryside and villages of the Périgord Noir, the region of France where the story is set. I’m sure I’ll be reading the other two books in the trilogy, whenever they are available.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 42/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies

This is the first of Dinah Jefferies’ novels not to be set in Asia. After being whisked off by her previous six books to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, French Indochina and other fascinating settings, it was a surprise to find that her latest one takes place in Italy. I do love reading about Italy, though, and this setting – Rome and Tuscany during World War II – was just as interesting as the others.

The Contessa of the title is Sofia de’ Corsi, who lives with her husband Lorenzo in their Tuscan villa in the Val d’Orcia. Lorenzo works for the Ministry of Agriculture but Sofia knows very little about what his work actually involves, other than that it takes him away from home for long periods of time. The war is in its final years – the story begins in November 1943 – yet life in Italy is becoming more dangerous and more complicated than ever. Much of the country is still under German martial law and although the Allies are advancing and driving the German army back, their progress is very slow. Not only do Italians have the Nazis to worry about, however, but they are also fighting each other, with anti-Fascist partisans locked in civil war with supporters of Mussolini and his Fascist forces.

When James, a British radio engineer, is found wounded near Sofia’s home she offers to give him shelter, but knowing that Lorenzo would be worried for her safety, she decides to keep his presence a secret from her husband. Meanwhile, Maxine, an Italian-American spy, has arrived from Rome to stay with Sofia, having been given the job of gathering information about the Germans to pass on to the resistance and the Allies. But with the Nazi officers stationed in the village beginning to grow suspicious about Sofia’s household, the two women and their loved ones could be in danger.

I have to confess that before I read The Tuscan Contessa I knew very little about Italy during the war, so I was pleased to find that a timeline is included at the front of the book, outlining the key events from the Italian perspective. This helped me to understand what had been happening in the months prior to the beginning of the novel and how there were so many different groups all working with or against each other: the German occupiers, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the Partisans and communists, Allied soldiers and SOE spies. It’s not surprising that Sofia and her friends are never quite sure who can and cannot be trusted and who might be about to betray them. One thing I really liked about the novel is the way Jefferies shows that there are good and bad people on all sides of any conflict and that both friends and enemies can be found where they are least expected.

Although there are plenty of male characters, all with significant roles to play in the novel, the focus is mainly on the women and the decisions they have to make to keep themselves and their families safe. I liked Sofia but the other characters felt less well drawn and I even found myself confusing some of them with each other. I didn’t feel that I ever truly got to know and understand Maxine, which was a shame because her storyline should have been the most exciting and compelling, as her work took her into some very dangerous situations. It seemed that the characters sometimes took second place to the history unfolding around them, which made the story less emotionally gripping than it could have been.

This is not one of my favourite Dinah Jefferies novels, but I’m still glad I read it even if just for the knowledge I’ve gained of 1940s Italy!

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies

So far, the novels of Dinah Jefferies have taken me to India, Malaya, Ceylon and French Indochina. Now, with The Missing Sister, I have had the opportunity to visit Burma. Known as Myanmar today, the novel is set in 1936 when Burma is still a British colony – although unrest is growing and there are signs that independence might not be far away. It is to Burma that Belle Hatton has come in search of answers to a mystery that has haunted her family for more than twenty years.

Taking a job as a singer in a luxury hotel in the capital city of Rangoon, Belle uses her spare time to hunt for clues that may explain the disappearance of her parents’ baby daughter, Elvira, in January 1911. Belle herself has grown up in England, unaware that her elder sister ever existed, but now that both of her parents are dead, she has discovered a newspaper clipping describing the day Elvira, only three weeks old, vanished from the Hattons’ garden in Rangoon. Although it was all so long ago, Belle is determined to find out what really happened and whether Elvira could possibly still be alive.

As with all of Dinah Jefferies’ novels, the location is beautifully described and although I’ve never been to Burma/Myanmar it was easy to picture the lively, bustling streets of Rangoon (now Yangon), the opulent temples and pagodas, and the scenery Belle sees when, later in the book, she travels upriver to Mandalay. Another common feature of Jefferies’ books tends to be a portrayal of different cultures existing, often uneasily, side by side in the final years of the British Empire (or in the case of The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, the French Empire). This book contains a vivid description of a violent riot between the Burmese and the Burmese Indians, but otherwise I was a bit disappointed that Belle has little involvement with the local people and their struggles, sticking mainly to the British community and focusing on her search for Elvira.

The mystery element of the novel is slightly predictable and although I didn’t guess exactly what had happened to Belle’s sister, I wasn’t at all surprised by the ending of the book. Along the way, Belle is offered help from two very different men – Edward, a British government official, and Oliver, an American journalist – but when she starts to receive anonymous warnings, she is unsure which, if either of them, she can trust. This time, I did guess correctly – but I did have a few doubts as it wasn’t completely obvious.

There was one other aspect of the book that interested me: a storyline set several years earlier and following the story of Belle’s mother, Diana, and how she copes with the tragic disappearance of Elvira. When suspicion falls on Diana herself, she and her husband leave Burma and return to England where, sadly, their marriage starts to break down under the stress of their ordeal. Diana doesn’t receive the support she deserves and decisions are made that will affect not only her own future but also her youngest daughter Belle’s. Diana’s story is told in the form of short chapters interspersed with Belle’s, which means we don’t spend a lot of time with her, but the little glimpses we are given of her life and the way she is treated by her husband are very sad.

This isn’t one of my favourite Dinah Jefferies novels, but I’m looking forward to her next one The Tuscan Contessa, which is out later this year and will be the first she has written not to be set in Asia.

Before the Rains by Dinah Jefferies

Whenever I want a book to transport me to another country and another time, I need look no further than Dinah Jefferies. So far her novels have taken me to Ceylon, Malaya and French Indochina; this one, Before the Rains, is set in Rajputana, India, in the 1930s.

Our heroine, Eliza Fraser, has a passion for photography and hopes to build a career for herself as a photojournalist. When an old family friend and British politician, Clifford Salter, arranges for her to spend a year photographing the royal family of one of India’s princely states, she is both delighted and nervous. India is where she grew up and she still feels a connection to the land and the people, but it is also where, at the age of ten, she witnessed the death of her father in Delhi.

Arriving at the palace where she will live for the next twelve months, Eliza finds that not everyone is happy to have an outsider interfering in their affairs, especially when they discover that she is a widow. Other people, though, are much more welcoming – including Jayant Singh, the younger brother of Prince Anish. When Jay offers to escort Eliza around the countryside in search of subjects for her photographs, she is distressed by the poverty she sees and urges Jay to do something to help his people. In return, Jay helps her to understand the effect British rule has had on India. As they discuss these and other issues and get to know each other better, a friendship forms between them which quickly becomes something more…but Eliza knows that there can only be any future for them if Jay is prepared to defy both his family and the expectations of society.

Like all of Dinah Jefferies’ novels, this one features some lovely descriptive writing, bringing to life the sounds, colours, tastes and smells of India. But along with the beautiful descriptions, there are some brutal, horrifying ones, such as an account of a widow throwing herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre, followed by a discussion of the custom of sati, as well as the fates of unwanted baby girls and of women suspected of witchcraft. For all Eliza had spent her childhood in India, she had been insulated within the British community and it’s only now that she is going out on her excursions with Jay that she feels she is truly starting to understand the country, its history and its people.

Although I loved the setting, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed some of Jefferies’ others, which is mainly due to the fact that I found it predictable and too reliant on coincidences – there were at least two plot twists towards the end that I found completely unconvincing. I also struggled to believe in Eliza’s romance with Jay; I liked both characters, but I thought it seemed too convenient that on arriving at the palace Eliza would immediately catch the eye of a prince. Maybe I should have just been less cynical and more prepared to suspend disbelief.

This is probably my least favourite of Dinah Jefferies’ novels, but I’m still looking forward to reading her new one, The Missing Sister, which will be set in 1930s Burma.

The Sapphire Widow by Dinah Jefferies

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.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies

After reading and loving Dinah Jefferies’ The Tea Planter’s Wife last month, I immediately added another of her books, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, to my 20 Books of Summer list, hoping for another great read.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is set in French Indochina, the name formerly given to the group of French colonial territories which included Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The title character – and our heroine – is Nicole Duval, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a French silk merchant based in Hanoi, the capital city. The period during which the story takes place is a turbulent time in the history of the region and Jefferies provides a useful timeline at the front of the book for those of us who need some help in understanding the sequence of events.

As the novel opens in 1952, Nicole learns that her father is planning to hand over the running of the entire silk business to her older sister, Sylvie, leaving Nicole with only one small, neglected silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of the city. Nicole is disappointed and resentful; her relationship with Sylvie has been difficult from childhood and yet again, Nicole has been made to feel inferior. To make matters worse, the man she loves – Mark, an American trader who is in Hanoi on mysterious government business – has previously been in a relationship with her sister, and Nicole is not at all sure that he and Sylvie no longer have feelings for each other.

Determined to make the best of things, Nicole opens up the little silk shop and it is here, living and working among the Vietnamese people, that she begins to understand their discontent with French rule. With the help of Tran, a militant with the revolutionary group the Viet Minh, Nicole’s mind is opened to new ideas and views. Being half Vietnamese herself – she has inherited her looks from her late Vietnamese mother, whereas Sylvie resembles their French father – Nicole has a certain amount of sympathy for Tran and his friends. But Mark and the Duvals will be on the opposite site of the coming conflict, so Nicole needs to decide where and with whom her loyalties lie.

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is another enjoyable and engaging novel from Dinah Jefferies, bringing to life the history of a place about which I previously knew very little. Having learned about the Malayan Emergency in The Separation and 1920s Ceylon in The Tea Planter’s Wife, it was good to have the opportunity this time to add to my knowledge of Vietnam. I haven’t read much about the Vietnam War and nothing at all – until now – about the years immediately preceding it, encompassing the rise of the Viet Minh and the First Indochina War. It was also interesting to read about French colonialism, which made a change from reading about British colonialism!

Writing the novel from the perspective of Nicole was a good decision by Jefferies, as she is in the unusual position of being both French and Vietnamese. However, I never really felt that she was truly torn between the two and it seemed fairly obvious to me which side, and which man, she would eventually choose, and that took some of the tension and emotion out of the story. There are some wonderful descriptions of Vietnam, from the sights, sounds and smells of the streets of Hanoi to the colours and textures of Nicole’s silks, but on the whole I found this book slightly disappointing after the very high standards set by The Tea Planter’s Wife.

Although this is not my favourite Dinah Jefferies book, I am still looking forward to reading Before the Rains, her new novel set in India.

This is book 2/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

I’ve been falling behind with Dinah Jefferies’ novels; after reading her first, The Separation, back in 2014, she has since had another three books published, none of which I had read until picking up The Tea Planter’s Wife a few weeks ago.  I regret not reading it sooner, because I loved it and am now desperate to read her other two, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter and Before the Rains.    

The Tea Planter’s Wife is set in Ceylon (the former name for Sri Lanka) in the 1920s and 30s, and begins with the arrival of newly married Gwendolyn Hooper who has come from England to join her husband, Laurence, on his tea plantation. Gwen is only nineteen years old and barely really knows her husband, a widower much older than herself.  Settling into married life proves to be more difficult than she’d expected, particularly as she also has to get used to a whole new culture and climate.  It doesn’t help that Laurence’s sister Verity comes to live with them and makes it obvious that she resents Gwen marrying her brother.  To make matters worse, Gwen is convinced that Laurence is trying to hide the truth surrounding the death of his first wife, Caroline.   

Feeling lonely and neglected, Gwen is grateful for the friendship of Savi Ravasinghe, a Sinhalese portrait painter, and is mystified as to why Laurence seems to disapprove of him so much.  Then something happens which makes Gwen think that Laurence was right to distrust Savi – and which throws her already troubled life into even more turmoil. 

With its evocative setting and aura of mystery and secrecy, this is a wonderfully atmospheric novel with an almost gothic feel at times.  Throughout the first half of the novel, in particular, I was constantly reminded of one of my favourite books, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: the naive, inexperienced young woman; the mysterious older husband who becomes increasingly distant as soon as the wedding is over; the first wife who, even in death, still casts a shadow over the household.  The similarities lessened as the story continued, though, and more themes and elements were introduced.

Ceylon, as it was known then, is a country I know very little about, so I found it interesting to read of the racial and political tensions between the various groups of people who live on the island – the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the British planters.  With Gwen being a newcomer and unfamiliar with the way of life, we see things through her eyes and share her experiences as she tries to adapt to her new home.  Gwen finds the living standards of the plantation workers particularly difficult to accept and her well-meaning attempts to improve things for them often get her into trouble.  And yet this doesn’t feel to me like an author simply projecting her own modern views onto a character from a bygone time, as often happens in historical fiction, but more a way of showing that Gwen was a decent person who wanted to help in any small way she could, with a natural sympathy for children, the sick and the vulnerable, whatever their colour or status in society.

The setting plays an important part in the story, but so do the people, the decisions they make and the ways in which they communicate – or fail to communicate – with each other.  This is the sort of book where you find yourself becoming frustrated with the characters because they just won’t tell each other the truth…but at the same time you understand why they feel they can’t! 

Having enjoyed The Tea Planter’s Wife so much I’m pleased that I still have two more books by Dinah Jefferies to read.  I just need to decide which one to read next!