It all happened by chance. A stroke of fate that meant I was born in the East during a turbulent period of Malaya’s history. In fact my dad’s car came under fire on the way to the nursing home where Mum was due to give birth.
So for my first novel, The Separation, Penguin/Viking, I dug into my family’s history and our old photograph albums to populate the story. But I didn’t want to visit twenty-first century Malaysia and see a concrete jungle where once there had been butterflies as big as your hands; I didn’t want to find highways instead of remote rubber plantations where we used to swim in natural spring-water pools, overhung by leaves the size of frying pans. I read books about The Emergency that had taken place in Malaya during the 1950s, a largely forgotten war fought between the British administration and the Chinese Communist ‘terrorists’ in the jungles. Along with my mother’s memory and my own, plus lots of YouTube footage, they provided all the research I needed.
It was very different for The Tea Planter’s Wife. I wanted to set the new book in Sri Lanka during the 1920s and 1930s when it was called Ceylon. I’d always loved the name ‘Ceylon’ and how it conjured images of misty tea plantations and the distant past, even though I barely knew where it was – a little pearl drop at the southern tip of India it turns out. So two years ago I booked my first trip to the East as an adult.
When I walked out of the air-conditioned airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the noise was electrifying: men crowded to carry my case, horns blared and people yelled, but little of that mattered. I stood there feeling shocked and alone, reeling from moist heat approaching like a solid wall. Palm trees waved in the breeze, the scent of cinnamon drifted in the air and, feeling profoundly assaulted by the past, I fought to control my breath while struggling not to cry. Everything that had vanished from my Eastern childhood when we came to live in England came racing back, so powerfully that I couldn’t speak. It was my first visit to South East Asia since the day my family left Malaya and in that momentary time-warp, I was eight and a half years old again.
I pulled myself together for the hazardous drive ahead and we eventually arrived at one of Tea Trails luxurious colonial ‘bungalows’. Truly, I felt that I’d been whisked back into another, slower, more enchanting world. The book is set beside an imaginary lake in the misty hill country, but that’s exactly where I found myself being waited on by silent-footed ‘butlers’, my every whim catered for. Picture yourself waking up in heaven and you’re halfway there. They told us to think of it as our second home and for a brief ecstatic interlude I felt as if it was. I’d already written a first draft and just needed authentic detail so, with a fantastic library at my disposal – books I’d never have found in England – I dipped in every day, writing furiously whilst the fragrance of paradise drifted in through the open windows. Exactly the atmosphere I wanted to create for my Tea Planter’s Wife, Gwendolyn Hooper, a naïve young woman, who steps off the steamer in Colombo, in 1925, thinking everything about her new life will be perfection.
Of course it was never going to be so faultless – there’d be no story – and, juxtaposed against all this luxury and beauty, Gwen finds clues to a hidden, unspeakable past.
An extraordinary thing happened at the end of our stay when a cyclone close to southern India triggered a monstrous monsoon in Sri Lanka. The air, thick with rain, was an unyielding white screen. You could no longer see the lake, nor the tea plantation, nor the lawns or the gardens. The rain splashed up a metre in the air and pounded the rooftop making a phenomenal racket. It also washed away the road, just before we were due to be driven back to Colombo before flying home to the UK. So what to do? It must have been one of the most unique ways to depart. The gardeners carried our luggage on their heads – which made me feel guilty- and then was piled into a canoe where it wobbled precariously. My husband and I squeezed into another canoe and so we left the wonderful tea plantation behind, during the tail end of a cyclone, and made our way back to England BY CANOE. Or at least the first leg of the journey. So there you have it. The utter joy of research, for me, lies in extraordinary experiences that I’ll never forget. Next stop was Vietnam.
(c) Dinah Jefferies
About The Tea Planter’s Wife
Dinah Jefferies’ new novel, The Tea Planter’s Wife is a haunting, tender portrait of a woman forced to choose between her duty as a wife and her instinct as a mother…
Nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper steps off a steamer in Ceylon full of optimism, eager to join her new husband. But the man who greets her at the tea plantation is not the same one she fell in love with in London.
Distant and brooding, Laurence spends long days wrapped up in his work, leaving his young bride to explore the plantation alone. It’s a place filled with clues to the past – locked doors, a yellowed wedding dress in a dusty trunk, an overgrown grave hidden in the grounds, far too small for an adult…
Gwen soon falls pregnant and her husband is overjoyed, but she has little time to celebrate. In the delivery room the new mother is faced with a terrible choice, one she knows no one in her upper class set will understand – least of all Laurence. Forced to bury a secret at the heart of her marriage, Gwen is more isolated than ever. When the time comes, how will her husband ever understand what she has done?
The Tea Planter’s Wife is a story of guilt, betrayal and untold secrets vividly and entrancingly set in colonial era Ceylon.
The Tea Planter’s Wife is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!