Book Review: The Silk Merchant’s Daughter

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The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, by Dinah Jefferies, is set in and around Hanoi during the first Indochina War. At this time America was providing support to the French forces in an attempt to prevent the spread of communism, which they feared would result should the native Vietnamese population, who had the support of China and the USSR, succeed in overthrowing the colonial government.

The story starts at Nicole Duval’s eighteenth birthday party where her older sister, Sylvie, introduces her to a handsome American silk trader named Mark Jenson. He is not all he seems. Nicole and Sylvie are métisse having been born of a French father and a Vietnamese mother. Their father is a wealthy silk merchant who also holds a secretive position within the colonial government. Their mother died in childbirth.

Nicole lives in the shadow of her sister. She has inherited her mother’s Vietnamese looks and considers herself clumsy and ugly beside Sylvie’s French features and elegance. Their father, a fierce supporter of the benefits of French rule, has always favoured his elder daughter. When he transfers the running of the family business to Sylvie, giving Nicole only an abandoned shop to revitalise, she feels shunned by them both.

Nicole finds that she enjoys working in her shop, which is located in the ancient quarter of the city, and is excited by the feelings Mark is awakening within her. Then she sees her father commit a heinous act to which Mark and Sylvie appear complicit. With her new Vietnamese friends discussing the cruelties inflicted by the French in their attempts to maintain control of the country her loyalties are tested. In an attempt to find her place in this changing world she makes a difficult choice.

As with her previous two books the author takes the reader into the heart of the story’s setting with all its colour, heat, smells and tastes. However, I found this quite different in style and scope. The effects of the war on the cast of characters caused significant hardship and there is no attempt to shy away from the brutality inflicted by individuals embroiled in the conflict. Nicole and Sylvie brought to mind the sisters in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. Their actions were explicable but frustrating and I struggled to empathise.

I also struggled with a few aspects of Nicole’s story: why she had a part in the play; the sudden onset of claustrophobia. I wondered how she was capable of successfully reopening and running a shop when she appeared flighty and foolish in so many other ways.

However, I wanted to know what happened next and the ongoing story flowed. There was romance but also recognition of loneliness, desire and the confusion jealousy can cause. The insurgent Tran’s expectations of what Nicole would want helped to emphasis her cultural difference, however much of an outcast she may have felt within the circle of her family and their French acquaintances. The backdrop of war allowed for an exploration of the effects of anarchy on man, how some will behave “once civilising restraints were no longer in place”. The bleakness of war was well evoked.

The denouement is nicely done and should engender sympathy for the current refugee crisis in Europe. Politics and history are complex beasts however black and white governments like to paint their propaganda. It is hard to comment further without dropping spoilers. I will simply say that the tension of the final fifty pages provided a gratifying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies, is a mesmerising tale of the damage that secrets can cause within even the most loving of marriages. Set in Ceylon (now the nation of Sri Lanka) between the first and second world wars it portrays the differing attitudes of the colonists and natives during the final decades of British rule. However, whilst the politics simmer in the background, this is a story of people, of the precarious nature of relationships, and of the tragedies resulting from entrenched prejudices.

Gwendolyn Cooper is nineteen years old when she travels alone to Ceylon following her marriage to Laurence, a widower who owns and runs a vast tea plantation in the hills. They are deeply in love but have only known each other for a few months. As Gwen explores her new home she discovers clues to a past that Laurence has not disclosed. His friends in the colony include an American widow, Christina, who treats Laurence with a proprietal air. His sister Verity’s passive aggression undermines Gwen’s attempts to establish herself as mistress of their home at every turn.

When Gwen discovers that she is pregnant all appear to be delighted. Gwen desires nothing more than to be a good wife and mother. However, complications during the birth mean that she must make a heart-breaking choice which she cannot reveal to her husband. This moment changes her life, threatens her status in society, and takes a terrible toll on her health.

In the years that follow Gwen must learn to live with the consequences of her decision. Laurence has been badly affected by the western world’s financial problems, and the local population’s growing discontent with colonial rule threatens their comfortable way of life. The dour estate manager is struggling to deal with these changes and appears to blame Gwen for her unwillingness to condone the societal hierarchies he imposes. Verity and Christina continue to be thorns in her side.

As the secrets that Gwen and Laurence keep begin to unravel, Gwen questions if the price she has paid to hold her marriage together has been too high.

Stories of love, marriage and secrets are not my usual fare but this author’s writing raises her books above the crowd. Her settings are brought vividly to life with her descriptions of the sounds, smells and colour of the country and its people. In reading her words I was transported to Ceylon. Likewise each of her characters, main and supporting, are presented fully rounded. I empathised with their desires and fears. However appalling, I could understand not just their dilemmas but their reasoning.

I had guessed at the denouement early on but it was still poignant. Reading this book felt like living Gwen’s life, it was the journey through the pages that I enjoyed. I can understand why this book has become a best seller.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Review: Literary Afternoon Tea at Bowood with Dinah Jefferies

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Traditional afternoon teas have become quite the thing at luxury hotels of late, and Bowood Hotel in Wiltshire does them with aplomb. Taken in the library, which overlooks a part of the estate’s beautiful park and woodland, one can easily feel transported back to an age of elegance and refinement. The range of fine teas served with a surprisingly generous selection of delicate sandwiches, delicious scones and tempting cakes, is attractively presented and impressive. An experience to be savoured.

Sidetracked as I was by the good company, I did not do the array of goodies on offer justice. I was at the hotel to attend what has become a regular and popular event in their busy calendar, a Literary Afternoon Tea. These occasions combine the delights of this stylish treat with the chance to meet and listen to a visiting author as they talk about their latest book and how it came to be written. The ambience of the library was perfect for author Dinah Jefferies, who started her talk by sharing some of her experiences growing up in 1950’s colonial Malaya where her debut novel, The Separation, is set.

Writing is essentially a solitary pursuit. However, the rules of the game are changing all the time. Where once an author could have expected to live a quiet life, creating their imaginary worlds for all to enjoy in print, they are now required to promote their work on numerous social media sites and at the increasingly popular Literary Festivals, bookshop visits, and events such as this one at Bowood.  If Dinah finds these public appearances a challenge then it did not show.

Her talk offered attendees an insight into her writing process, inspirations and the issues faced by a successful author. The Separation is her debut novel; her second book, The Tea Planter’s Wife, is due to be published in the spring of next year; she is currently writing her third book and is already considering ideas for her fourth. With all of these imaginary worlds and their characters swirling around inside her head she is required to move seamlessly between them: to talk of one, edit another, create a third and develop a fourth. For someone who claims not to have a good memory this must be quite an ask!

Dinah likened writing a book to a sculptor creating a work of art. If many people have a book inside them then this would be the block of stone. The quality of this base product will vary, as will the ability of the artist to produce something worthwhile. Creativity requires skill and dedication. What emerges may not be exactly what was envisaged when the writer first started chipping away at their idea.

Each of Dinah’s books has started with a setting, a place and time, and a plot that has been developed through extensive research. She decides how the book is to feel initially, its structure and key events. The detail of the story emerges as she writes, with editing ensuring continuity and a flow that will engage the reader throughout. She explained that she tries to avoid long, descriptive sections, aiming to offer sensory stimulation, showing rather than telling.

Dinah attended this event with her husband, who I had the privilege of talking to as Dinah signed the books that were offered for sale after her engaging question and answer session with the receptive audience. Richard exuded justifiable pride in his wife’s achievements. I would imagine her job is made easier by having such a supportive partner.

The couple of hours that I spent at Bowood flew by, filled as it was with pleasant company, interesting conversation and the ambience of a delightful setting. I hope that, after I left, Dinah and Richard were able to relax and enjoy the tempting treats offered.

I would recommend an event such as this as an appealing indulgence for all with an interest in books. I am grateful to Dinah and to Charlotte at Bowood for adding me to their guest list.

 

Author Interview: Dinah Jefferies

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When I approach an author I am unfamiliar with for an interview, it is usually because there has been something about the way they write that has intrigued me. Dinah Jefferies’ life has presented her with some significant challenges, which is perhaps why she can imbue her female protagonists with such depth of feeling and strength whilst avoiding clichéd or cloying descriptions. Her prose is deft, her characters real.

From the people she has created in her first book, The Separation, I got the feeling that this author is an adroit judge of character as well as an intelligent and talented writer. The steamy setting, with its 1950’s housewives and pompous husbands, could easily have placed her book in that much maligned genre of romantic ‘chick lit’. This is sidestepped cannily, although I suspect that fans of the genre will enjoy her writing. Alongside the passion and intrigue she offers nuance and insight whilst avoiding any suggestion of earnestness.

I was eager to find out more about the creator of this book so was delighted when she consented to be interviewed.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Dinah Jefferies.

Where do you typically write?

I always write in my little work room at the back of our terraced Victorian house. I have a desk for the computer, and a desk for writing notes and for plotting my novels, although by the time a book is complete the layers of notebooks are usually a foot deep. When I have a tidy up at the end it shocks me how much stuff I’ve accumulated. There’s probably enough material for half a dozen books.

Tell us about your writing process.

I start with a location; so far all my books are set in the East. Once I’ve picked a country I’ll read about the history and hope to find a time period that fascinates me. Usually I’ll choose a period of upheaval, where social change is happening or is about to take place, and often that process of reading will suggest an idea for the story. Of course a lot of time and heartache will have to go into developing the idea, and that tends to happen at the same time as I develop the characters. I’m known for strong female characters who undergo an emotional journey during troubled times, so I look for challenging situations for my main characters. My favourite stage is when I’m thinking about how I’ll weave the characters into the time and place I’ve chosen. I don’t plan everything in advance, although I know what my themes are and I know what drives the central story. I usually write a first draft and while reworking it the deeper story unfolds. Sometimes it is a little different from the original idea. It’s a complex process of discovery and it can keep me awake at night.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

Well all I can say is that my publishers at Viking/Penguin have been fantastic and I’ve enjoyed every part of the experience. Their offices are on the Strand in London overlooking the river, so I love going up there for meetings. They’re also extremely friendly people and that helps.

In what ways do you promote your work?

I do all the usual things: blog tours, interviews, signings. Also I give talks at bookshops, libraries and Literature Festivals. I shall be appearing at three festivals this October: Beverley, Cheltenham and Ilkley. I’m also to be found on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. I love Pinterest because I tend to think visually. I’ve been interviewed on the radio several times but have yet to do television. Hopefully I will at some point.

What are some of your current projects?

I’ve just finished the edits for The Tea Planter’s Wife set in Ceylon between 1925 and 1934 which will be published by Penguin and in translation next year. I really loved writing it and I’m very pleased with the end result. Now I’m working on my third book a complex story set in Vietnam – and therefore terrifically hard to write. I’m at the fingers crossed stage. It always happens somewhere along the line and, so far, I’ve found my way through. Writing ‘on the edge’ you could call it!

Where can my readers find you?

On Twitter: Dinah Jefferies (@DinahJefferies)

My  blog: Dinah Jefferies – Author  (www.dinahjefferies.com)

On Facebook: Dinah Jefferies – Author, Penguin UK

On Pinterest: Dinah Jefferies – Author

The Separation is available for purchase now, from the publisher, Amazon and all good bookshops.

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Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaya and moved to England at the age of nine. She still loves South East Asia and the Far East and jumps at the chance to travel there whenever she can. She once lived in a commune with a rock band, and has worked as an exhibiting artist. After also living in Italy and Spain, she now lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and very naughty Norfolk Terrier where she writes full time. The Separation is her first novel.

The Separation Cover Final - Front - Medium

 

Book Review: The Separation

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The Separation, by Dinah Jefferies, is a book filled with love and loss. Set in 1950’s Malaya and England, it tells its tale from two points of view: a mother separated from her children by a vindictive husband, and their young daughter who is torn from everything she holds dear without explanation. It is a story filled with tragedy and longing, of the misuse of power and the inner strength that can be found in times of crisis.

The descriptions of Malaya are colourful and evocative throughout, placing the reader firmly within the mindset of post war colonialists living a gilded, threatened  lifestyle in a country being torn apart by war. With danger and unrest a part of everyday life, the British drink and party, conduct affairs and look on the wide variety of locals as a sea of coloured faces to be subdued, used and feared. The immigrant men are arrogant, the women decorative, the risk of death an accepted part of life.

The pictures painted of the Malayan towns and countryside convey a place of great beauty filled with underlying danger, of natural and man made oppression in keeping with the times. For the adult incomers there were fortunes to be made, for the children there was a freedom and magic unimaginable to those in England.

The lifestyle in England provided contrast with its damp greyness and cramped conditions. The attitude of so many of the adults seemed alien to modern day thinking. With demands for control and dogmatic mind sets, the children were cowed into a submission they had no option but to accept. It made for painful reading.

The author though writes beautifully. The story has depth, passion, fear and longing yet it is presented with a light touch that suggests as much as it describes. The tale is so much more than an historical account of family misadventures from days gone by. It transports the reader back in time to experience the lives and emotions as they were lived. I felt impotent loss and anger as I read, despair at the lies, pain at the tragedies, a glimmer of hope as the truth finally emerged.

The scale of the story is breathtaking. The scope of the wrongs done to so many would have made for difficult reading had it not been for the skill of the storyteller. I enjoyed this book immensely.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author at my request.