27 March 2016

Book Review: The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jeffries

"Nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper is newly married to a rich and charming widower, eager to join him on his tea plantation, determined to be the perfect wife and mother. But life in Ceylon is not what Gwen expected. The plantation workers are resentful, the neighbours treacherous. And there are clues to the past - a dusty trunk of dresses, an overgrown gravestone in the grounds - that her husband refuses to discuss. Just as Gwen finds her feet, disaster strikes. She faces a terrible choice, hiding the truth from almost everyone, but a secret this big can't stay buried forever . . ."

Rating: 5/5

You can buy the book now.

I've been trying to broaden my reading horizons a little bit lately, simply by trying books that wouldn't normally appeal to me, and really giving them a go, instead of giving up just a few chapters in as I would normally do. I was sent a review copy of this historical fiction novel a while ago, and decided to take a chance on it, as I had heard very good things about it. I am so pleased that I did because I thought it was a beautifully written story, and I honestly loved everything about it! I loved it so much I've already invested in a few more titles from Dinah Jeffries, and I can't wait to get started reading them.

This book is based around the character of Gwendolyn. She's got married at the young age of 19, and has had to move her life to Ceylon to live with her new husband, at his tea plantation. Gwendolyn doesn't really know too much about the business, the expectations on her in Ceylon, or simply how to use her time when he r husband is away. As her marriage progresses, Gwendolyn suddenly finds herself having to hide a desperate secret from everyone around her, even though the truth is eating her up inside. She is sure the secret can't stay buried forever, but knows she has to try to save her marriage...

When I began reading this book, I didn't really have any expectation about the story, or what the secret that Gwendolyn has to hide would be. I guessed that it would be something that we wouldn't find so outrageous in today's world, but of course this book is set nearly 100 years ago, in the 1920's when expectations were very different. I also didn't know much about the tea plantation business or Ceylon, so I was hoping the book would educate me. It did, and I found it fascinating in so many ways. I loved reading about how the tea plantation business worked, how hard the pickers had to work, how they were treated by the people who owned the plantations, and how their lives really weren't of importance to the businessmen, it was quite shocking in parts.

Gwendolyn was almost as naive as I was, fully believing that everyone's lives were just as important as anyone else's, and this was quite a radical viewpoint at this time. The relationship she has with her husband Laurence was intriguing too, very unlike a modern marriage, to the point where the pair felt clearly felt awkward to be around each other, I did find it rather strange! I loved Gwendolyn as a character though, and felt desperately sorry for her when the reader finds out what her secret is. For some reason, as this part of the book approached, I had a horrible feeling about what her secret would be, and it turned out that I was correct, and knew how bad it would be for her if she were to be found out. It was horribly sad for her, but really highlighted the difference in how it would be perceived today, and back then.

The main cast of this book is small, but brilliantly written, so much so that you become absorbed into life in Ceylon, into Gwendolyn's world at the tea plantation, and I truly became very invested in her story, and her marriage to Laurence. The appearance of Laurence's awful sister Verity certainly livened the story up a bit, clearly intended for her to be a character you could thoroughly dislike, and Gwendolyn's housekeeper was also a wonderfully written character for the story. The character of Savi Ravasinghe, a local Ceylon man, was interesting too, and you're left wondering for much of the novel about him. Ceylon itself was beautifully written by Jeffries, you can really imagine the place in your mind - the bustling markets, the rolling hills for miles around the plantation, the natives, and just everything about it was so evocative of the time and it truly did come to life for me as I was reading.

For me, this was a superb novel that I just did not want to end. I kept picking up the book at every opportunity throughout the day, desperate to read on and find out how it was all going to come to a conclusion for poor Gwendolyn. There's a lot of themes going on in this book, mainly based around the prejudices and unrest of the time, the expectation on a young women ill equipped to deal with her new reality, and the complete change in culture, both for Gwendolyn and the reader! It was a joy from start to finish, it moved me to tears and I know it's a novel that will stay with me for a long time, and certainly will be one of my best reads on 2016.

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