Malaya 1955. It’s the eve of the Cartwright family’s departure from Malaya. Eleven-year-old Emma can’t understand why they’re leaving without their mother, or why her taciturn father is refusing to answer her questions.
Returning from a visit to a friend sick with polio, Emma’s mother, Lydia, arrives home to an empty house. There’s no sign of her husband Alec, her daughters, or even the servants. The telephone line is dead.
Acting on information from Alec’s boss, Lydia embarks on a dangerous journey across civil-war-torn Malaya to find her family.
The Separation was the debut novel of Dinah Jefferies and owes it setting to much of Jefferies’ own childhood in Malaya. In the afterword, Jefferies speaks about how she wanted to rely on her own memories of the place rather than do fresh research and it certainly works as the country comes alive for the reader. The descriptions of the place are actually very menacing with the oppressive heat and the sense of danger caused by the guerrilla war which was known as The Emergency.
Malaya was under British rule from 1826 to 1957 and this book is set two years before the country gained independence so there is a lot of ill-feeling towards the British. The feeling of menace is heightened by the fact Lydia is a European woman alone in a hostile country who doesn’t know who she can trust because people are constantly lying to her or about her. When Lydia returns home to discover her family have gone, she seeks out her husband’s boss who immediately lies to her by saying her husband has taken a job in another town. When Lydia makes the perilous journey to find them, she discovers their building has been burnt to the ground by guerrillas and her family have supposedly perished.
Of course, we know her daughters are safe in England with their father who is busy lying to them about the whereabouts of their mother. For the English chapters, the narrative is taken up by Lydia’s eldest daughter, Emma, who is growing ever more suspicious of her father’s motives. While her father is busy covering his own back, Emma is molested by a family friend and her father fails to protect her. Acting out, Emma is sent to a school for troubled children to essentially keep her out of the way.
Emma and Lydia are both very strong characters who are amazingly resilient to the terrible situations they both face and Emma never gives up hope she will see her mother again. A distraught Lydia takes a while to come to terms with her losses but once she realises things are not what they seem, she wastes no time in getting at the truth. The supporting characters are less well defined though and we never really get to the bottom of why Lydia’s husband felt the need to behave the way he does. We know he felt betrayed when Lydia had an affair but if that is the sole motivation for destroying his family, then it is decidedly overdone since Alec has secrets of his own as we are soon to discover.