Just married Gwendolyn Hooper is only nineteen when she travels across the seas to join her husband, Laurence, and start a new life on his vast tea plantation in Ceylon. Full of excitement and optimism at first, she is then disappointed to find her husband somewhat changed from the light hearted and easy man she married in London. His broodiness unsettles her, his lack of affection depresses her, and it is clear his mind is occupied elsewhere. While Gwen has no idea what is going on, she is soon consumed with her own troubles and what follows is a heartbreaking story of secrets, suspicion, betrayal and guilt.
Dinah Jefferies tells Gwen’s story with empathy and beauty, describing both her protagonist’s emotions and the story’s setting with vivacity and accuracy. We are carried away to the lush landscape of 1920s and 30s Ceylon, with its mountains and lakes and it’s tropical heat. We almost experience for ourselves its fierce monsoons and oppressive humidity. Jefferies enables us to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the country in all their exotic brilliance. The colours of the flowers, the sounds of the birds and insects, the smell of the lemons, the cinnamon, the tea. It’s all richly described to us within a heartfelt, compelling, and often, tense narrative.
Ceylon achieved political independence in 1948, not long after the time period of the novel. The novel reflects the country’s tensions just as it’s on the brink of change. Resentment of the many intricacies of colonialism is rapidly increasing and showing itself in violent outbursts. Moreover, agitation is rife among the plantation workers: conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil workers is bubbling, aggravated by their unequal treatment; and resistance to progressive change in favour of the old, familiar ways is causing trouble at the top. This backdrop to the main thread of the story adds another layer, throwing more tension into the mix. It’s an essential part of the narrative because it shows Gwen and Laurence’s stance and feelings in relation to the country’s situation, and it connects their personal story to the country’s story.
The theme of motherhood is central to the novel – in fact it is very telling that the author dedicated the book to the memory of her son. Maternal love weaves its way through every part of the novel. And if you mix loss into that love you get a great labyrinth of heightened emotions. Heartbreaking is the most accurate word to describe this story; from the tangled web of misunderstandings and misjudgements, to the colossal grief of losing a child, to the even bigger picture of racial intolerance, prejudice and hatred. For if you question why something ugly is happening in this book, are you not always led back to the horrific happenings and attitudes during British colonialism? Nothing in this story is easy to take. If you have a strong sense of justice you will be appalled, if you are a mother you will be lost. The story cuts through your heart and lingers long after you have turned the last page and walked away.
With its beautiful prose and roller-coaster story, The Tea Planter’s Wife will both delight and depress you. It is a magnificent read.
She took a step towards him and her efforts at keeping calm fell apart.
‘Actually, Mr McGregor, I do not think I did anything wrong in helping that little girl. Only a person with a heart of stone could think otherwise. It was not I who caused this, but you. The days of flogging a man over a trifle are over, and if they are not, well, shame on you.’
‘Have you finished?’
‘Not quite. You will be very fortunate if the Ceylon Labour Union do not pick this up. You are a mean-minded man who sees nothing but the bad in people. I believe in treating people kindly and fairly, whatever the colour of their skin.’
His face spasmed. ‘This has nothing to do with colour.’
‘Of course it’s to do with colour. Everything in this country is to do with colour. Well, mark my words, Mr McGregor, all this will come back to bite you one day, and on that day none of us will be safe in our beds.’