This week I’m reviewing The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies, the Number One Sunday Times Best Seller in 2015. I’ve been meaning to read this for almost a year now and fortunately it didn’t disappoint. The one thing that stood out to me was how similar the basic plot is to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. As I really enjoyed Rebecca, and the plot was developed to acquire different cultural and historical backgrounds, this didn’t ruin the book for me, but I can understand that for others this may be regarded as a major drawback. For those who are unfamiliar with Rebecca: (although make sure you put it on your list for the future!) a young woman marries a widower enshrouded in gossip surrounding the death of his previous wife, Rebecca. The housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, at Manderly House professes her admiration for Rebecca, and seeks to make life difficult for the unnamed protagonist. Key themes of the novel include: colonialism, tea plantations, slavery, wealth, commercialism, power, race, family, marriage, secrets, motherhood and death.
A heart-breaking tale about Gwen, the protagonist, a young English girl who marries a rich tea plantation owner called Laurence. The majority of the novel is set in Ceylon, which we now know as Sri Lanka. Gwen struggles to adjust to life in Ceylon with her numerous responsibilities including managing the plantations accounts (which don’t add up) and coping with Verity, her difficult sister-in-law. The real challenge begins when she falls pregnant and her love as a mother is put to the ultimate test. Their marriage is shrouded by secrets from the beginning and until they reveal these secrets, neither will be able to enjoy marital bliss.
I found the novel addictive; drawn into the plot by the mysterious behaviour of some of the characters and the exotic setting in Ceylon. Whilst the novel gives readers the impression that they know the book, and can guess what happens next, there are plenty of surprises along the way. Jefferies creates a female protagonist that the reader can really connect with, despite the unfamiliar foreign setting in a period spanning 1913 to 1934. Historical events are mentioned throughout the book, such as the Wall Street Crash in America, and the emergence of Adolph Hitler. Therefore, although we may locate ourselves within the novel, through the real life events and sensitive narrator, there is still a sense of dislocation for the reader and they are put in a parallel position to the protagonist’s own unease.
One of the book’s central concerns is the issue of race. In the author’s note at the end of the novel, Jefferies reveals her extensive research prior to writing The Tea Planter’s Wife, including a visit to Sri Lanka to create more of an accurate representation. This enhances the novel through the vividly described settings – from the urban capital to the lakeside plantation; multiple perspectives on the plantation ranging from workers, servants, master and the naïve plantation owner’s new wife helping readers to imagine what life really might have been like on a tea plantation. Jefferies describes how she “created a predicament for [Gwen] that would test all her assumptions about racial differences and colonial attitudes” despite her otherwise privileged existence. The issue of race is explored through the perspective of a young and naive, white female who discovers that she cannot simply intervene in the longstanding tradition of the plantations without any consequences.
One disappointing aspect for me was Verity’s character who was very irritating (as she was perhaps supposed to be). Her child-like behaviour became predictable and did not add much to the book. Gwen is the only one who attempts to challenge her behaviour, and there is not much more that Jefferies squeezes out of her character except for her apparent indifference towards Gwen. It is in this sense that the book differs slightly from Rebecca. Mrs Danvers is almost always present at Manderly and acts mysteriously and maliciously directly towards the protagonist. Her motivations, aside from Rebecca, are harder to determine, and hide a much darker truth which results in the dramatic final chapter of Rebecca.
For those who enjoyed Rebecca, this is a similar read but with addition of the darker issues of colonialism and racial divide and the beautiful setting of Ceylon. It is a thought provoking read which will challenge most readers’ abilities to predict what will happen next, and uproot their judgements about the characters; perhaps we don’t know them at all! A whirlwind of history, heartbreak, and hidden secrets combine to form a page turner which will linger in your mind even after the last page.
Next week’s book is Julia Heaberlin’s Black Eyed Susans