Dinah Jefferies’ debut novel in the US brings a vivid portrayal of life on a tea plantation in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Set in the 1920’s, this is a historical novel, love story and family drama that brings to life the racial, social and domestic upheavals of the British colonial era.
Gwen, a nineteen year old English woman marries the much older, widowed Laurence Hooper, who is from a family of Ceylon’s original English settlers. The story is full of betrayal, suspense, guilt, and secrets blended together into a timeless story of a young woman struggling to find her place in colonial Ceylon against unexpected circumstances and facing life changing choices. After a whirlwind courtship in England she arrives in Ceylon by boat, expecting to be met by her husband, but instead finds herself alone and out of her depth. A Sinhalese artist, Savi Ravasinghe, befriends her and helps her while she waits.
Once they arrive at the plantation Gwen determines to be the best wife and plans for changes. She is befriended by Naveena who has been with the family for many years. She uncovers a child’s unmarked grave, a trunk of clothes and learns more about Laurence’s first wife and child. He seems haunted by their deaths and is reluctant to talk and despite her best efforts neither will anyone else on the plantation. Adding to Gwen’s unease are Laurence’s sister Verity, one of the novel’s more troubled characters, and Christina, his beautiful widowed friend, both who take up his time and attention.
Gwen becomes pregnant with twins and both she and Laurence are excited by the impending arrivals. Laurence is away on business when Gwen goes into labor with only Naveena to help. She delivers a boy and a girl, but after seeing her daughter must make a heart wrenching decision to save her marriage and avoid shaming and shunning by British society in Ceylon. She is left with unimaginable grief and guilt for the rest of her life and how she moves forward is a large part of the story.
The Tea Planter’s Wife portray a character in Gwen that recognizes her gutsiness, commitment and willingness to take risks that are so impressive. Many young women like Gwen went to join their husbands in what were the colonies and faced hardships, danger, monsoons, disease and the simmering tensions with the local people. The author, who grew up in Malaysia, portrays this bygone time very well and uses the secrets of both husband and wife to expose the prejudice and unfairness of the British colonial era. She has done meticulous research and is true to the customs and mores of the era. Overall this was an enjoyable read and enlightens the reader into the story of tea what really goes into making a good cuppa.
Luba Sawczyn is Branch Manager at the Graham Public Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (336) 570-6730.