Literary Pop: The Tea Planter’s Wife

“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
Year: 2015
Nationality: British

 

Tea-Planters-WifeWhen 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.

ceylon-tea-country-tea-trails-srilanka

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

Literary Pop: Wolf Hall

“It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.”

Author: Hilary Mantel
Year: 2009
Nationality: British

I’ve been making an effort recently to get more in touch with some modern literature – partly because I feel I shouldn’t get too stuck in the past, and partly because recent novels seem on the whole to be more easily readable than their older counterparts.  Counterintuitively therefore I picked up Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s 650-page Booker Prize-winning epic about the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII (I’m led to believe the fall will follow in parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy).

Wolf Hall follows Cromwell on his journey from beaten blacksmith’s son to one of the most powerful men in the realm, chronicled through a number of wolfhallhistorical events, focussing on the dissolution of Henry’s first marriage (to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon) and the installation of his new wife, Anne Boleyn, as Queen.  The tale is wrought with the current of Henry’s battle with the Roman Catholic Church, and ends with (spoilers) the execution of Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor and perennial thorn-in-the-side. (To hear this story from the other side, watch 1966’s Best Picture winner, A Man for All Seasons, in which More is the hero and Cromwell a villain (yawn)).  Through his wit, intelligence and intricate knowledge of the law, Cromwell rises through various posts to become the king’s most trusted adviser and the man to whom everyone turns to get things done.  He overcomes his association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and finds himself intimately connected with the Howards and the Boleyns (because it probably seemed like a good idea at the time).  By the end of the book he has risen to an unheralded superiority in the kingdom – but what goes up, must come down…

I won’t lie, it’s not an easy read. Particularly at the start the somewhat ambiguous nature of the dialogue and the fact that roughly 70% of the men are called Thomas makes it hard to get to grips with.  The huge, ever-changing pool of characters doesn’t help, but (fortunately?) the book is long enough to give the reader ample opportunity to get used to proceedings.
Throughout the book, I gained respect and regard for Cromwell, and when I eventually get round to reading Bring Up the Bodies and the to-be-released finale it will be disappointing to read of his downfall.  This is an curious experience for me, because I’ve never really been into historical fiction before, which has the caveat that whatever the action, the end result will be the same.  I am however gaining a little insight into the genre, and it’s interesting to think (again, thinking of A Man for All Seasons) how the author of a work can spin history to favour one character or another.  Not that I’m accusing Hilary Mantel of having any political motive, of course.  I’m sure she’s not like that at all.  It also has the additional bonus of teaching me a bit about history (taken with a large pinch of salt), and I like learning.  More for me in future, I think.

 

My Rating: 8/10

Literary Pop: Murder on the Orient Express

Author: Agatha Christie
Year: 1934
Nationality: British

“It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria.”

Some time last year, inspired by my Christiephilic girlfriend (I’m sensing something of a pattern here), I read my first ever Hercule Poirot story (and my first Agatha Christie novel), entitled An Appointment with Death. I enjoyed it, and so for my birthday in December I received a couple more Poirot books: Death on the Nile, and this, Murder on the Orient Express. Of course everyone’s at least heard of Agatha Christie, and chances are if you’ve heard of any of her books then these two will surely be among them. I’ve never really read much in the way of detective fiction, so this is a relatively new area for me. However, it looks like it won’t be too hard for me to become acquainted quickly enough given that I picked it up on Friday night and had finished it by the end of Saturday.

Murder on the Orient Express is the 10th of Christie’s novels to star Hercule Poirot, the iconic little Belgian detective with the distinctive moustache. As I’ve come to find out, it doesn’t seem to matter which order you read them in so don’t be put off by the fact that (bold prediction incoming) you probably haven’t read the first nine.

The order of the books, it is not significant.
The order of the books, it is not significant.

When Poirot is summoned from Istanbul back to London at short notice, he manages to grab a last-minute seat on the titular locomotive, which should have him back in a matter of days. However, progress is delayed when the train is forced to a standstill in heavy snow, and things take a turn for the sinister when a seemingly-unpleasant old man is found stabbed to death in his bed the following morning. Among a group of passengers of various nationalities from murdercoverall walks of life, Poirot has the impossible job of finding out who among them, if any, has a connection to the dead man that might suggest his or her involvement. With the train going nowhere fast, Poirot has all the time he needs to interview the passengers, analyse the evidence and come to a conclusion that may or may not surprise you. I’m not going to spoil the ending, because what would be the point of that, but I for one was surprised.

This was an excellent book, and it’s easy to see where Agatha Christie earned the nickname “The Queen of Crime”. I’ve now read two of her books, and had no idea what was coming in either; I think it’s fair to say however that Murder on the Orient Express is on an entirely different level to the Poirot I read previously. Apart from being more than admirably written from a literary point of view, the story itself is genius. I find myself wanting to read it again to see if I can pick up on things that I missed, but even then I get the feeling I’ll be tricked again. I can’t really tell you much other than that you need to read this for yourself. Additionally, if you like a series (I like a series) there are loads more that you can (and I plan to) discover. Even if you don’t, you ought to read this book. You might be surprised.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Literary Pop: Pride and Prejudice

Author: Jane Austen
Nationality: English
Year: 1813

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Since my movie reviews have become much scarcer now I’m on something of a literary mission, it only seems right to drop in a book review where appropriate. I’m still a little rusty at these, especially when the novel is something as iconic as Pride and Prejudice, but I can only get better through practice (I reckon). Book reviews are apparently a thing kids do at school regularly but I’m sure that I never did more than one or two in my lifetime so I apologise if I don’t seem to know what I’m talking about. I first picked up Pride and Prejudice a couple of years ago and ended up putting it down again barely a chapter in; there was something about the writing style that I just couldn’t come to terms with. On the strong recommendation of my Austen-loving girlfriend I gave it another go and quickly became accustomed to the delicate, humorous prose.

Pride and PrejudiceFor those of you who don’t know (i.e. me, this time last week), Pride and Prejudice is (broadly speaking) the tale of young Elizabeth Bennet, who can perfectly judge someone within an instant, and her acquaintances with the noble Mr. Darcy, who knows himself to be better than everyone else. The two may be destined for each other, but only if they can break free from the chains of the titular vices. Elizabeth’s Hertfordshire household consists of her rational father, irrational mother, and four sisters: Jane, the admirable and optimistic eldest, closest friend to 21-year-old Eliza (the second-born), then Mary, the boring, inconsequential middle child. Bringing up the rear are Kitty and Lydia, the troublesome younger duo who take after their mother The majority of the narrative is concerned with the various friendships, courtships and marriages of the Bennet girls (except of course Mary) and their neighbours, strongly encouraged by Mrs. Bennet when her daughters are the beneficiaries and opposed when not. Potential suitors include Misters Bingley, Wickham and Collins, each with their own benefits and drawbacks; it soon becomes clear that some people have vastly different reasons for marriage than others. Regardless, it’s safe to say that the novel comes to a satisfying conclusion as far as the vast majority of characters are concerned, although in many ways the end feels more like a new beginning.

Having been encouraged to give Pride and Prejudice another try, I’m definitely glad that I did. The relatively large number of important characters means that it takes a little time to settle in, and as this was my first (and definitely not my last) Austen the writing style was a little unusual to me but soon became humorous and agreeable. It’s undeniably intelligent, and very different from most anything I’ve read before. I definitely need to give a few more of her novels a go, as well as the BBC miniseries of this one that I’ve heard so much about (although Colin Firth as Darcy doesn’t seem to quite fit in my head). The book was oddly alien to me to begin with, but I soon began to appreciate its very obvious Britishness. We’ve got a lot of things to be proud of on this little island, and literature, including apparently Miss Austen, is a big one.

My Rating: 8.5/10