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 Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay

As a woman in 1925, Irene Blum feels that her work does not get the recognition it deserves. When she misses out on the position of curator at Seattle’s Brooke Museum, she dreams of making an important historical discovery, one that she can build her own museum around. Since her childhood she has been fascinated by Cambodia and its ancient Khmer civilisation, so when she learns of the possible existence of ten copper scrolls recording the history of the Khmer people she sets off on an expedition to Cambodia to search for them.

Irene begins her journey in Shanghai where she hopes to enlist the help of Simone Merlin, a revolutionary activist and Cambodian scholar who shares Irene’s interest in the Khmer. Despite the disapproval of her abusive husband Simone agrees to join her. At first Irene is pleased to have Simone’s support, but soon begins to wonder whether she might have reasons of her own for wanting to find the lost scrolls.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first is set in Shanghai, China, the second in Saigon, Vietnam and in the third Irene, Simone and their companions finally arrive at their destination, the Cambodian jungle. None of these are places that I know very much about (Cambodia was a completely new setting for me and the other two I only have a very limited knowledge of) and I loved all the descriptions of the three locations. It’s always interesting to read about cultures that are entirely different to your own and by the time I’d finished the book I felt I’d learned a little bit about what life might have been like in China, Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1920s, as well as learning some facts about the Khmer civilisation.

The Map of Lost Memories is not a fast-paced thriller filled with non-stop action and adventure, although it might sound like one from the synopsis. Instead, the story develops quite slowly (a bit too slowly for me, to be honest, especially throughout the first half of the novel) and although Irene and Simone do have some adventures and things get more exciting later in the book, there’s also a lot of focus on the personal lives of the two women, their relationships and their motives for searching for the legendary scrolls.

It was good to read a book set in the 1920s with strong female protagonists at a time when women didn’t have the same career opportunities they have today. However, although I sympathised with Irene’s frustration at her achievements constantly being overlooked or ignored and I admired her dedication and determination, I was never able to warm to her as a character. Unfortunately I didn’t feel much connection to any of the other characters either, which meant that even when they were heading into danger I found I didn’t really care what happened to them. The plot and the setting almost made up for my lack of interest in the characters so I did still enjoy the book, but not as much as I might otherwise have done. This was a promising debut novel, though – it was obvious that the author must have a real passion for Cambodia and Khmer history and that she knows the subject well.