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 She should be able to rely on her husband Elliot for support, but Elliot has become withdrawn and distant, spending more and more of his time visiting a nearby cinnamon plantation in which he says he has bought shares.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 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!

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne

The Swimmer is a beautifully written novel by Roma Tearne set in the small English town of Orford in Suffolk. It’s the story of Ria, a forty-three-year-old poet, and Ben, a young refugee from Sri Lanka.

Ria is a single woman who lives alone in Eel House, a cottage which once belonged to her uncle. She’s quite happy to be there on her own; if she needs company there’s Eric, an older man from the neighbouring farm, and her brother and his family visit occasionally too – although these visits aren’t entirely welcome. Sometimes, though, life can be lonely for Ria. After a few failed relationships in the past she’s almost given up hope of finding someone to love…until she discovers Ben swimming in the river behind her house.

Ben, a Tamil refugee, left Sri Lanka to escape from the violence there. His asylum application has not yet been processed and so he’s living and working in Britain as an illegal immigrant. Although he’s eighteen years younger than Ria and from an entirely different background, the two begin to fall in love.

I really liked the first section of this book and enjoyed watching Ria and Ben’s relationship slowly develop. I thought the rest of the novel would continue in the same way, but then something happened which I wasn’t prepared for. The plot started to go in another direction, there was a new narrator to get used to, and I felt as if I was reading a completely different book to the one I had been expecting. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though; the second part of the book was interesting, moving and relevant and the narrator was a more passionate person than Ria.

The third, and shortest, section of the book also switches narrator and again took me by surprise. Although I found the third narrator difficult to like, I thought seeing things from this person’s point of view helped to pull the story together and set up a perfect ending to the book.

I was impressed by Roma Tearne’s wonderfully descriptive writing and the way she portrayed the hot summer days in Orford and the Suffolk landscape with its marshlands and rivers. I particularly liked the references to the eels in the rivers which migrate from the Sargasso Sea (‘swimmers’, like Ben). But at times there was too much description, too much detail, which made the story move at a very slow pace.

I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book because before I started it I wasn’t sure if it would be for me. I can imagine that if you’ve read a lot of other novels about immigration and refugees you might find this book unoriginal and contrived, but I haven’t read much fiction on this subject so The Swimmer did leave me with a few things to think about.