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

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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