The Tea Planter's Wife
by Dinah Jeffries
Crown, 2016. 432 pgs. Fiction.
Gwendolyn Hooper, a naïve, young Englishwoman, follows her new husband to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he owns a tea plantation. The newlyweds love each other, but distance arises between them as soon as Gwen arrives. Mystery surrounds the death of Laurence’s first wife and their young son, and Gwen quickly becomes wary of her husband’s close relationship with a local socialite. One evening, jealous and drunk, Gwen leaves a family party and stumbles to bed. Nine months later, she gives birth, in Laurence’s absence, to a white boy and a mixed race girl. Shocked, confused, and terrified, she makes a decision that leaves her heartbroken and mired in secrecy.
The Tea Planter’s Wife definitely held my curiosity. As the novel progressed, I found myself making wild guesses about how the plot would work out, and I ended up being wrong on basically every count. It was difficult to discern who the “good guys” and villains were in this tale, which made the twists and turns more compelling. Jeffries takes on some difficult topics – race relations, colonialism, rape, infidelity, secrecy and trust, mental illness, and more, and I largely think she succeeds. She does an especially lovely job of painting the scene with her evocative, atmospheric descriptions of 1920s Ceylon. Her writing can be a little dense at times, but the plot pulled me in, in spite of (or maybe because of) the melodrama.