Saturday 7 April 2018

Emma's Review: The Sapphire Widow by Dinah Jefferies

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Ceylon, 1935. Louisa Reeve, the daughter of a successful British gem trader, and her husband Elliot, a charming, thrill-seeking businessman, seem like the couple who have it all. Except what they long for more than anything: a child.

While Louisa struggles with miscarriages, Elliot is increasingly absent, spending much of his time at a nearby cinnamon plantation, overlooking the Indian ocean. After his sudden death, Louisa is left alone to solve the mystery he left behind. Revisiting the plantation at Cinnamon Hills, she finds herself unexpectedly drawn towards the owner Leo, a rugged outdoors man with a chequered past. The plantation casts a spell, but all is not as it seems. And when Elliot's shocking betrayal is revealed, Louisa has only Leo to turn to...

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Many thanks to Penguin Books UK via NetGalley for my copy of The Sapphire Widow to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

It feels like only yesterday that Dinah Jefferies appeared on my reading radar with her incredible d├ębut The Separation and then quickly become one of my favourite authors. The Sapphire Widow is her fifth book and takes us back to Ceylon which was the setting for The Tea Planter's Wife. The connection between these two books, apart from the setting, is that a favourite character makes a reappearance and this is the first time this has happened with any of Dinah's books. I have to admit I let out a little squeal of excitement when I saw that Gwen was featured and would go on to become a close friend and confident of our main character Louisa Reeve. It was like reuniting with an old friend and it was lovely to see how both Gwen and Laurence were getting on since we last left them. Also it provided a slightly different perspective on their story as observed by Louisa and it was something fresh and different. It seems too like fate that both books set in exotic Ceylon have been deservedly chosen as picks for Richard and Judy's Book Club.

From the opening words to this wonderful, yet at times heartbreaking, story I was instantly transported to 1930's Ceylon, to a time very different from the world we live in today. A young boy walks with his mother through the forests of a cinnamon plantation. He observes the exotic wildlife, hears the rushing of the waves close by and inhales the smells all around. That is one thing about this authors writing, you are always made to feel as if you are right there in the alluring country. You may be out of sight of the characters, hidden but you are observing and listening obtaining an insight into their lives and their trials and tribulations. You feel like you are there in Ceylon or wherever it might be. You are transported from your reading chair to a country filled with heat, hustle and bustle where all the sights, sounds and smells combine to create a feast for the senses.

Always Dinah writes with such vivid imagery that you quickly build up a picture in your mind of what the place may have looked like at the time. An incredible sense of time and place is evoked with acute attention to detail. I could visualise the port wall where Louisa walks or the markets she explores where there is a constant hum of noise, chatter and laughter as trade is conducted. The author clearly has such a deep love for the areas she writes about and the reader can sense this through the wonderful writing that pours from every page. Each of Dinah's books feature women who experience trauma, upheaval and hardship and through everything they endure and experience they attempt to battle on and emerge a changed character even stronger and this is achieved through courage, conviction and tenacity.

In this book it is no different and Louisa Reeve is certainly a character where I really felt so much injustice befell her. She led what she believed to be a charmed life in the port town of Galle which was the centre of trade for jewels, cinnamon and rubber. Married for 12 years to Elliott, a handsome, charming man who is in charge of a gem cutting and polishing house alongside having his fingers in several other pies. Elliott is a man who doesn't have to try too hard, people flock to him and he creates a buzz and friendships easily. Louisa is different, much more of a closed book. Yes she loves her life in the colonial house she shares with Elliott and spending time cycling through the narrow streets of the town soaking up the atmosphere, running errands, gardening or spending time with her beloved dogs. But behind it all she is desperately sad that children have not been something that have come into her life. Heartache and trauma are forever in her heart after several miscarriages and a still birth. Why is it the one thing she longs for with all her heart is just as cruelly out of reach? Louisa is stoic but always internalises her feelings. She will keep going on going just like she did when times in the past with Elliott surrounding his personal life proved challenging. These issues have been worked through and maybe she can come to some sort of peace regarding her lost babies after time too. Or maybe not.

We got initial glimpses into Elliott's character but more so from Louisa's perspective. He took life at a ferocious speed liking glamour and the good things in life. Having many business interests was his thing although I sensed he was quite often bank rolled by Louisa given her wealthy background because of her gem merchant father Jonathan Hardcastle. Elliott was mysterious and I felt there was a slight tension or unease starting to creep into  the marriage but it is only when tragedy strikes and Elliott is taken from her that Louisa realises what exactly has been going on behind her back. More or less everything she thought to be true was in fact based on a foundation of lies, secrets and subterfuge. The wonderful life and marriage she thought she had was more or less a sham.

Elliott had become the master of secrecy but this got him into trouble and now Louisa is the one left to attempt to pick up the pieces and get to the bottom of the truth. In doing so there are many dangers and I really enjoyed how more sinister undertones began to creep in as Louisa never could rest easy or know what was about to happen to her. Although one incident surrounding an animal did bring a tear to my eye and I was cursing Elliott. She couldn't get on with her life and grieve for Elliott because his death brought to light an almost double life he was leading. The one legacy that Elliott did leave was his purchase of an old printing house which he alongside Louisa had planned to transform into an emporium where lots of traders could sell their wares and this was one reality that Louisa decided she wanted to come to fruition. In one way I felt desperately sorry for Louisa as she had lost the man she loved but on another I was angry that her life was built on lies and falsehoods. Only that she showed some entrepreneurial spirit and a quest and fervour to discover the answers to many questions enabled her to keep going.

Louisa became a strong, independent woman where many other women would have fallen down in a heap and given up. As her journey leads her to the Cinnamon Hills plantation and to the enigmatic but supportive Leo MacNairn, Louisa uncovers even more shocking things Elliott had been keeping hidden. After everything she had been through I thought how could Elliott have done this to her. It was upsetting and cruel but it is the reaction from Louisa that shows what an incredibly selfless woman she was. I think many other women would have turned tails and ran but that was not within her nature. Elliott may have imposed suffering on her but she would not have wanted the same for others. Time and time again throughout the course of the story Louisa surprised me through her charitable, generous and humanitarian actions putting others needs and feelings above her own.

Once again Dinah Jefferies has written another novel that will have you swept up in all the mystery, betrayal and intrigue that oozes from every chapter. It shows how a sudden event can change the course of one's life forever. It's how we weather that storm and deal with the fall out and various repercussions that is most important. Louisa believed that sharing love was essential and that one betrayal should not dominate one's life forever more. She became very much a changed character from when we first met her and maybe all the better for her experiences. The Sapphire Widow was a thoroughly good read and if you haven't read anything by this author before I would heartily recommend it and then you will have the pleasure of going back and reading her previous four novels. I'm sad now I will have to wait some time to see where I will journey to with Dinah Jefferies next but the time spent in Ceylon and with Louisa was well spent.

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