I admit I was completely suckered in to picking up this book because of the front cover and its promise of far away climes and exotic places. It certainly delivered on the exotic climes with the book entirely set in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and the local cities and plantations in the early 19th Century after WWI.
We are introduced to our lead character, 19 year Gwen early on as she leaves England for Ceylon to marry her widower husband Lawrence who owns a tea plantation. Ceylon is described beautifully, you really feel the heat and humidity but also why Gwen falls in love with the country and her plantation home; it is beautiful. But the simmering tensions of rebellion are also prominent, the problems of class divide and the treatment of labourers all add a cloying atmosphere of the rising tensions of the area. Without this context I don’t think the book would have worked so well, or Gwens’ decisions understood.
Initially Gwen is a sweet and naive girl who wants to do well as a housewife and fit in with the local ex-pat community in Ceylon, however she is not a placid girl and is used to being useful, wishing to understand the running of the plantation, though she struggles with being undermined and pushed out by the plantation manager though is successful in the house. Despite this Gwen throughout the novel showed that she was not a push over and had strong beliefs and moral fibre, that she does not accept the inherent racism prevalent in Ceylon and will help others from the lower classes, however ironically ‘racism’ plays a huge motivating role in what happens to her.
For me it is this early naivete that allows the central tragedy of the book to take place, with Gwen still so young, new to the role and not fully understanding of her husband and the secrets that still surround him and his previous wife’s death, and being generally without support, apart from the absolutely lovely housekeeper Naveena who solidly supports her throughout. I found how she dealt and persevered with her choices extraordinarily brave, despite her pain and it was the real turning point in seeing Gwen grow as a character coming out of her 2 dimensional paradigms as a heroine, showing the early promises of character strength she had displayed in the novel.
Gwen really held the story together and her turmoil and desperation to keep her world together despite the emotional cost on her, but I enjoyed the other characters from the complex broody Lawrence, to the loyal Naveena, impish Fran, the mysterious Savi and temptress Caroline. They all added a depth to the storyline and added rather than detracted from it as a whole. Verity, as the clingy antagonistic younger sister also played a major contributing factor to the storyline and while, like Gwen, I never warmed up to her, I wavered between pity, exasperation and downright annoyance and by the end of the novel couldn’t see a happy future for Verity. But then I don’t think Verity could either.
Overall I very much enjoyed this book, it was a slow starter but then picked up the pace about a quarter to a third in, with me eager to know what would happen to Gwen and her family. While the conclusion of Gwen’s story was bitter-sweet, only emphasising the need for honesty and communication, it was ultimately satisfying and I left feeling hopeful for Gwen despite the uncertainty of the future for her and Lawrence.
4 stars from me – now I just need to go look up other novels by Dinah Jefferies!