To be published on 5th April 2018, Viking Penguin, 400 pages, £5.75
Courage. Grief. Passion. It always amazes me how Dinah Jefferies can create characters with such immense inner strength and intense vulnerability. Every year I wait to get lost in the sensory and emotional explosion of her writing. The Sapphire Widow is set in Ceylon during the 1930s. Louisa is a young wife besotted with her charming, handsome and charismatic husband Elliot. She is convinced they have the perfect marriage, but still struggles with their inability to have children and Elliot’s reckless behaviour. After the shock of his sudden death, strange mysteries and terrible secrets are revealed, exposing a side of her husband she had never known or truly acknowledged.
This novel was a real journey. Amongst the utterly gorgeous descriptions of the everyday scenes, sights and smells of Ceylon, Jefferies unravels a compelling tale of heart-break and betrayal. The reader slips effortlessly into Louisa’s routine, her inner thoughts, needs and anxieties. We are gently eased into a story about marital issues, which at first appear typical, but are soon revealed to be tiny cracks towards a dark mesh of secrets. After news of Elliot’s sudden death, Louisa discovers each of these with thrilling fast-paced succession. Whilst she struggles to process the consequences of Elliot’s behaviour, the reader tries to catch up with the baffling and dangerous turn of events. We then follow Louisa’s attempts to pick up the pieces, find some sort of resolve and move on with admirable composure. Jefferies writes about grief with tenderness and delicacy.
There is a small but stable set of secondary characters lending both uplifting support and grating antagonism. Louisa’s path runs into Leo, an owner to a Cinnamon plantation where Elliot spent much of his time. Silent, steely and sensitive, Leo is blatantly Elliot’s opposite. Her attraction to him is immediate but troubling. Is it her vulnerable need for companionship or the start of a bond stronger than her whole marriage? As she tries to negotiate her feelings, there is no doubt that she depends on Leo, who is the only link to one of Elliot’s mysterious legacies. A really absorbing read.
Many thanks to Penguin for my review. Can’t wait for another story soon…
Read review of other books by Dinah Jefferies
Published by Penguin UK, 23rd February 2017, 416 pages, £7.99
I am an avid follower of Dinah Jefferies, thanks to The Tea Planter’s Wife and even more so after the beautiful The Silk Merchant’s Daughter. Before the Rains is another installment about a plucky young woman overcoming personal struggles during the tumultuous period of her exotic setting and, of course, getting swept by a complicated romance.
Its 1930, Rajputana, India, Eliza Fraser is a young widow and aspiring photojournalist with the first big job of what she had been told was an impossible career. She is sent on behalf of the English Government to an Indian princely state to capture images of the royal family, the first ever English woman to enter its impenetrable palace walls. Having lived in India as a young girl, she has a soulful connection to the country which only blossoms when she meets Jay, the Prince’s handsome and distant brother. Eliza enters the palace carrying her unresolved problems related to her father’s death in India, consuming guilt over her husband’s death and the alcoholic mother she left in England. Meeting Jay, who begins by being attractively disagreeable, helps her uncover mysteries of her past but throws her into a buffer position, having to navigate between England’s controlling grip and the might of Indian monarchy.
I wasn’t absorbed in this story as much as I was with Silk Merchant, the premise was not as heart-poundingly gripping for me. There is no question that the author delivers another vivid time portal, a VR version of prose. She captivates the reader’s senses with stunningly rich descriptions that read smoothly rather than in dense clumps. For about a week, I was in 1930s India, walking the shadowy halls of the palace with Eliza and smelling cardamon or riding into the dusty landscapes with Jay.
Yet the main structure of the plot was predictable but not in a comforting and satisfying way. The way events unfolded were far-fetched and felt more like the author connecting loose dots to summon meaning about fate and destiny. Some of the other characters felt like soap-opera stereotypes- the evil royal advisor, the long lost sibling. The relationship between Eliza and Jay had its sweeping and heady moments, but its whole appeal was of a forbidden romance guarded by race and ancient laws, hardly something memorable and absorbing.
Many thanks to Penguin for my review copy, eagery awaiting another Dinah Jefferies world xxx