Reviewed by Emma Crowley
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?
They do say the second book, album etc is always the hardest but not so in the case of The Tea Planters Wife by Dinah Jefferies. In fact this book has only reaffirmed for me what a wonderfully talented, skilful author Dinah really is. I hope she continues to write in the historical fiction genre as she is adept at bringing the past to life. It's hard to believe that this is only her second book as it so well written with an engaging storyline that builds and builds to what was a jaw dropping conclusion.
This second release follows the stunning debut that was The Separation released last summer. I raved about this to everybody and it was my book of the year for 2014 so I had very high expectations for book number two and I am thrilled to say it lived up to every one of them and beyond. Dinah has such a way with words that from the very first page I was transported back to Ceylon in the 1920's and the huge tea plantations that sustained generations of families. I will admit before reading this I had to look up Ceylon as I hadn't realised this was the name formerly given to modern day Sri-Lanka. I hadn't much understanding the history of the country or what was going on at the time as the country began to seek independence. But this really didn't matter as the author gracefully wove historical detail alongside the heartbreaking story of Gwen Hooper.
The Tea Planters Wife is an exciting, astounding story where Gwen embarks upon a new life thousands of miles away from everything she has known into a new thrilling, dramatic world full of mystery and secrets. I was there with Gwen every step of her heart wrenching journey and I was sad to leave such wonderful, stand out characters behind.
The story opens with an intriguing prologue – a woman is packing away baby clothes and she then leaves her house. Well instantly I wanted to know who was the woman, where was the baby and where did she go? But the story that unfurled put these questions to the back of my mind as we meet Gwen Hooper who is beginning a new life in Ceylon. Recently married to plantation owner Lawrence Hooper she is taking up her position as lady of the house. Although this does not go down well with Laurence's sister Verity, she always seemed to be sneaking around corners and hiding things. Admittedly she wasn't one of my favourite characters. On board the boat she meets Savi Ravasinghe who seemed an inconsequential character at first but he became an essential element to the overall storyline. From the start I didn't really warm to him, he seemed a bit too good to be true. There always seemed to be hidden meanings behind what he was saying and he kept his cards close to his chest. I like an air of mystery around characters but I just had a bad feeling about him and wanted to see was it justified the more I read.
Once Gwen reached Colombo I was transported way back to the 1920's as Dinah Jefferies worked her magic and wrote so beautifully. She had no problems evoking all the sights, sounds, smells and colours of Ceylon. No longer was I sitting in damp and dreary Ireland, I was right there alongside Gwen as she experiences for the first time the traditions, culture, religion and ways of life so different from the way she had existed back in England. If an author doesn't make you feel like you are there in the time and place with the main character then they are wasting my time and there is not much point reading on but here Dinah has such a way with words and descriptions that you couldn't not but create vivid, realistic images in your head. Dinah has created a Pinterest board showing some of the photos she used as inspiration for this novel and I have to say many fitted in with what I had been imagining myself. The board is well worth checking out. https://www.pinterest.com/dinahjefferies/the-tea-planters-wife-penguin-2015/
Undoubtedly it must have been overwhelming for Gwen but she does her best to acclimatise and settle into her new life on the plantation. She does feel isolated and it is hard to make new friends as each estate is so far away. Laurence is out working all day overseeing the workers and Verity is cold and aloof only waiting to find fault with Gwen and her ways. Verity interferes with everything and is nosy, pushy and troublesome. Clearly she is not happy having a new lady of the house. It annoyed me that Laurence often took her side over Gwen's when dealing with day to day issues. The brother and sister seemed to have the most unusual of sibling relationships which didn't make a lot of sense to me. Underneath Verity's frosty exterior you sensed she had a history and was lonely but I didn't like the way she treated Gwen. There is a history to the house and Gwen uncovers elements of it but can not find all the answers she seeks. Who can blame Gwen for what she does at a ball after enduring Verity and her ways? This for me was the turning point in the book as one slip can have so many repercussions.
From here on the pace never let up and I couldn't turn the pages quick enough so lost was I in the story unfolding. Gwen's true character and nature comes to the fore as she forced to keep the most darkest of secrets from everyone except her close ally her maid Naveena. How brave Gwen was to make such a difficult decision but she did it for her love of Laurence. The weight of her secret must have been unbearable and I totally understood her choice. But at the same time we must all deal with the consequences of our decisions whether we like the outcome or not. Gwen could have become bitter and cold herself but for the sake of her marriage she carries on and maintains a front. There were so many twists and turns to Gwen's story and her secret that I was hooked and didn't want the story to end.
In books I've read previously the plantation owner who marries the young English woman turns out to be brutal and cruel to his wife. Here it was refreshing to read of Laurence who was not a bully or abusive. I felt he genuinely did love Gwen but the past was hanging over him and combined with the pressures of the present he couldn't fully let go and embrace love wholeheartedly. I did like the character of Laurence and in books it is essential to hold traits and secrets back to keep the interest of the reader. There was an air of mystique surrounding Laurence. You sensed he had been deeply hurt in the past and that something had changed his outlook on life and it was up to Gwen to break down the barrier Laurence had surrounded himself with. For the majority of the novel I felt we were only seeing part of his true character as we are often hesitant to fully let go for fear of getting hurt once again. I knew whatever Laurence was hiding was tormenting him and I wanted him to open up to Gwen and speak freely of his fears and be honest but then the same could have been said for Gwen herself.
Gwen was a fantastic multi-layered character who I fell in love with from the very first moment we meet her as she glimpses for the first time the island she will call home. Yes we feel her uncertainty about heading into a whole new world the polar opposite from what she had grown up with but you sense she is ready to embrace the challenges head on and forge a new life with the handsome, enigmatic Laurence. Gwen to me deserves nothing but admiration, she dealt with a massive upheaval at a young age extremely well. How many young women of today would venture to a new country all on their own knowing they would probably never see their family again? There were so many obstacles placed in her path some she dealt with carefully others she may have been to quick to try and find solutions to but as they say the path to true love never did run smooth. Faced with the biggest challenge of her life does Gwen make the right decision? Well you need to read this book to find that out.
Throughout the book I was grasping at hints being dropped as to past events and I attempted to establish connections between characters. For the most part I was very wrong, I was eager to discover how everything would pan out. Needless to say it is often who we least expect that has the most pivotal role to play. Dinah could have had a totally different ending to this book and I felt she would go a certain way and I couldn't possible understand how it could have been different. But she gave a strong explanation for what happens and I felt the ending was totally justified. The further you read the more you are swept off your feet with the revelations and betrayal. After reading such a thought provoking, powerful book I was loath to leave Gwen and co behind. I loved every minute of The Tea Planters Wife and can only imagine what Dinah has in store for us next if she is producing a story and writing of this calibre at this stage of her writing career.
Dinah Jefferies is an author who I now feel will never let me down and will always deliver an informative, gripping, intense, brilliant read. She is an author I will place in the category alongside Lucinda Riley and Lesley Pearse as authors whose books I look forward to every year and whose books I will cherish for a long time to come. Don't hesitate to buy The Tea Planters Wife on publication day it's up there as one of my books of 2015 and I'm sure it will be yours too.