Sunday, 21 February 2016

Emma's Review: The Silk Merchant's Daughter by Dinah Jefferies

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

1952, French Indochina. Since her mother's death, eighteen-year-old half-French, half-Vietnamese Nicole has been living in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Sylvie. When Sylvie is handed control of the family silk business, Nicole is given an abandoned silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi. But the area is teeming with militant rebels who want to end French rule, by any means possible. For the first time, Nicole is awakened to the corruption of colonial rule - and her own family's involvement shocks her to the core...

Tran, a notorious Vietnamese insurgent, seems to offer the perfect escape from her troubles, while Mark, a charming American trader, is the man she's always dreamed of. But who can she trust in this world where no one is what they seem?

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It seems like only yesterday I was engrossed in Dinah Jefferies brilliant d├ębut The Separation. Since then she has had phenomenal success with book two The Tea Planter's Wife (again another excellent read) with the book being selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club and subsequently spending weeks in The Sunday Times bestseller list even reaching the much coveted number one spot. I knew from reading The Separation that Dinah was a special author and obviously many other readers agree as her achievements  has been astounding in such a short space of time. With book two only having been released in September I thought we would be kept waiting ages for something new from Dinah. I'm delighted to say that hasn't been the case and book three has arrived in all its splendour -The Silk Merchants Daughter. Once again it has another stunning cover that makes me want to pick it up straight away and begin reading. It just draws you into the scenery and you are intent on uncovering the story between the pages of this new release. Once again Dinah takes us back to the past to a new era and setting. Set in 1952 and for the subsequent years of unrest and peril in French Indochina now known as Vietnam Dinah has yet again masterfully weaved a story that you easily become engrossed in and can't put down. If for any reason you do put down the book it sits there calling to you to continue reading as you are so keen to discover the fate of Nicole and her family.

At the beginning we are given an outline through the use of a time-line as to the history of French Indocina and I did feel this was a necessary addition before the story properly began. I don't really know much about that time in history and reading these brief notes gave me an insight as to the situation in the country at the time and who the various factions were fighting for control. Without this information I would have been lost as this book is more focused on the political situation compared to the previous two releases. Although Dinah does for the majority of the novel finely balance her character development alongside the erupting conflict. 

The Silk Merchants Daughter is a gratifying, captivating tale of sisterly rivalry, dark secrets and love against all the odds. Secrets and whom to trust play a big part in this novel and like our main protagonist Nicole I really didn't know who or what to believe. I found myself invested in a certain character but then only a few pages later I was left thinking because of their actions, no you couldn't possibly be the one to believe or have faith in. My viewpoints on characters changed regularly and I did find myself becoming annoyed by this as I like knowing who I should focus on and put my confidence in. On reflection I shouldn't have been frustrated as really Dinah had skilfully pulled the wool over my eyes and it really was essential to the development of the whole story. It was my own fault for not going with the flow and when I had finished reading I realised Dinah really is an adept proficient author who is getting stronger in her writing abilities with each book.

The majority of the book is set in Hanoi which is now the capital of modern day Vietnam. We do take detours to the countryside of Vietnam and as in her last two books Dinah's excellent ability to evoke a sense of time and place through her vivid descriptions was evident here. We meet Nicole as she celebrates her 18th birthday – a milestone for any girl but more so for Nicole considering the unrest simmering in the country she loves and calls home. Born to a French father and Vietnamese mother (who subsequently died) Nicole feels like she is the black sheep of the family always in the shadow of her older sister and made to feel inadequate. Her only solace and comfort is cook Lisa who is like the mother Nicole never knew. Nicole's mixed race heritage means she is not part of the French contingent in Hanoi nor is she accepted as fully Vietnamese by the natives. Her father has run a successful silk importing business and numerous shops for many years and now Nicole hopes she can take her place in running her father's empire. But sister Sylvie has other ideas and Nicole soon finds herself left to run the least popular of the shops in a run down area of the city. Maybe this might be the making of Nicole and will lead to further things as Hanoi is not the place she had envisioned spending all her life. At her party Nicole meets handsome Mark Jenson- an American who seeks adventure and becomes embroiled with the business Nicole's father seems to have with the government. 'It felt extraordinary. I'm probably being silly, but I felt as if I'd just met the person who might change my life'.

Nicole craves independence and wants to run the shop single handedly away from the prying eyes of her sister but this will not be easy as the streets of Hanoi are dangerous and filled with suspicion and intrigue. 'A place she could be herself without Sylvie breathing down her neck or her father telling her what to do and how to think'. Nicole feels her father blames her for her mother's death and that he has more faith in Sylvie's ability to continue his silk empire. She wants to prove him wrong but with the political situation about to come to a ghastly climax will this be possible? Dinah came into her own when describing the shop Nicole has to restart from scratch. The descriptions of its location and the surrounding streets of the city were powerful, eloquent and expressive. I felt the heat and humidity, could smell the flowers and street food and could envision the trees bursting into bloom and the birds singing. But this peace was about to be shattered and so to were Nicole's dreams. Nicole encounters Tran a cousin of the girl who runs the shop near Nicole's. She feels that special something that sparked upon sight of Mark . Again her heart and mind are in conflict. Should she trust Mark or Tran? Events picked up pace from this point on and everything unfolded very rapidly. So much so at times I found it challenging to keep up with the political situation that Nicole finds herself in. I couldn't even begin to explain them for fear of getting something wrong. I acknowledge Dinah had to work with true facts alongside her fictional characters but for a time the story did get bogged down in governments and rebels and who was fighting who and why. I lost track of the story for a bit but then the later half saw a return to a more character based story and this was phenomenal. I was on tender hooks to see how everything would pan out and to uncover just who both myself and Nicole could trust. 'One thing was clear whichever side she chose, it would mean loosing the other. If she turned her back on her family she would lose them'. 

Nicole finds herself on a journey both physical and emotional which will transform her life and she is put in the most impossible of situations. The harsh, destructive realities of battle and conflict are portrayed in the most meaningful of ways. I was with Nicole every step of her journey as she is forced to choose sides. Her life up until now had been relatively easy as to what she was about to find herself thrust into. She experienced the lowest of lows and suffering beyond description and when she believes she is coming out the other side the people she trusted have turned their back on her and put her in the most appalling, frightful position. Nicole was a character who underwent a transformation before our eyes. She had a strength and courage she never knew she was capable of possessing. She was wonderfully written but I found myself questioning some of her choices especially in relation to Tran. As the story develops we see her blossom from an innocent girl into a young woman willing to take responsibility in a time when everything around her was falling apart. As for Mark initially he seemed a bit of a cad, a player but the more we read his hidden depths became apparent and I loved how his story unfolded. He proved himself to be strong and a man who was committed and would be with you through thick and thin.

Dinah Jefferies has brought the story of the rebels attempts to stop French rule back from the past right into the hearts and minds of her readers. Alongside this we have the story of a young girl attempting to find herself. This proves quite tricky as her heart is torn in two. She also doesn't know who she can really trust not even her sister which is really a sad state of affairs. From the point of when Hanoi begins to fall and escape for foreigners is the only answer the story really came into its own and I loved seeing what happened with Nicole in her family home especially. A softer side to certain characters began to make its self known and opinions I had formed were rapidly changed. The later half of the book was far stronger for me it seemed tighter and was not as filled with political terms and movements of the rebels etc. All that had been stated and explained and the emotional side of the story was allowed to shine through. Truthfully I had been waiting for this as too much time spent on Nicole's travels did become a bit boring to read. The unravelling of family secrets and finding out how everything would come together did keep me intrigued right up until the last few pages. 

The Silk Merchants Daughter is an excellent read but it's not my favourite from Dinah - for me it's still The Separation. Fans of historical fiction will love this read as I did for the most part. Dinah's talent for description and character development really shines through and again she has created a fantastic, believable character in Nicole alongside some villains we will all fight ourselves disgusted with. I'm only sad that I read this book quite quickly as I know I will have a long wait until book four as Dinah has only begun her research for this next novel. Readers new to the superb,unparalleled writing of Dinah Jefferies have the luxury of reading books one and two. But for now I will console myself looking at Dinah's Pinterest boards for each of her novels and await news of the next book which I believe is to be set in India another exotic location I look forward to visiting through Dinah's storytelling.

I'd like to thank Emma for this fantastic review of The Silk Merchant's Daughter which we received from the publisher via NetGalley.

If you like the sound of The Silk Merchant's Daughter then you're in luck as thanks to Dinah's publicist I have a copy to give away to one lucky follower (sorry UK only I'm afraid).   N.B. Please do not add details of this giveaway to other sites without my permission. 

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7 comments:

  1. I haven't read any of her books, but I've seen a lot about this one and it sounds just beautiful! x

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  2. I'm just reading The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies and it's a beautiful story, would love to read this one too.

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  3. I haven't read any of Dinah's books but it sounds like a lovely story x

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  4. This is the first of Dinah's books I've heard about and it sounds lovely.

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  5. I've a couple of Dinah's books waiting to be read. I love these exotic settings - perfect armchair travelling!

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  6. I haven't yet read any of Dinah's books but I've heard such amazing things!

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  7. Dinah is a completely new author to me, I haven't read any of her books but by the sounds of this review, and the book itself, they're beautiful! Thanks so much Sharon & Emma xxx

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