“Nothing had prepared her for the shock of Ceylon’s scorching heat, nor its clashing colours, nor the contrast between the bright white light and the depth of the shade.”
Author: Dinah Jefferies
When I came to pick my first book to read in 2016 (confession: I started it at the end of December) my selection pool was relatively limited, January’s reading theme being books published in 2015. I had already decided on this theme late last year and informed my girlfriend so that she could pick out some books for me for Christmas. The results were pleasing – more to come later this month.
High on my list was The Tea Planter’s Wife. This novel was always going to attract me from the moment I discovered its existence because (white imperial bastard alert) I’m descended from Tea Planters. My great-great grandfather moved to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in the late 19th Century while it was a British colony and his descendents lived there until roughly 1970 when increasing political turmoil following 1948’s independence proclamation made it difficult to remain. I visited with my dad (who was born there) ten years ago and it’s always been a place I have a lot of affection for.
It is 1925. Nineteen-year-old Gwen moves from her family home in England halfway across the world to live with her new husband, tea planter Laurence. In the beginning, all is not well – although Gwen and Laurence are deeply in love, he is withholding something; and not just the tragic death of his first wife twelve years earlier. Nevertheless, Gwen soon falls pregnant and everything seems to be heading in the right direction. But mysteries remain. What does Laurence have against Gwen’s friendship with native artist Savi Ravasinghe? Why won’t his sister leave them alone? And will Gwen and Laurence admit their darkest secrets to each other? All will be revealed over the next nine years or so against the changing social and political backdrop of an island tiring of colonial rule.
The book took me a short while to really get into, but when I got going I was impressed. I think that when I first approached the narrative I was a little sceptical as to whether it was actually going to be any good, and this probably clouded the first few chapters a little. The book is very much about the wife rather than tea planter and I enjoyed the strong, complex female protagonist. Jefferies has also done considerable research into the history of the country and even the tea-making process and it shows. It’s essentially a tragic novel, and I was particularly impressed by the ending and its refusal to take the easy, mushy way out. On an individual level I found it pleasing to read about places I’ve heard about from my dad and visited myself and although the story is by no means the typical life of a planter’s wife, I did feel a connection to my female ancestors while reading.
Without the personal connection, I might not have read The Tea Planter’s Wife in the first place. But I’m very glad I did. It was an excellent read and I would recommend it to white imperial bastards and innocent bystanders alike.
My rating: 8.5/10