Nineteen-year-old Gwen is excited to start her new life on the tea plantation owned by her husband, Laurence, however her happiness is dimmed by the shadowy presence of Caroline, Laurence’s first wife. As a desperate Gwen tries to be a good wife, she is dismayed by her husband’s distant behaviour and increasingly concerned by the secrets that seem to pervade the plantation.
Just as things start to improve with Laurence, Gwen discovers she is pregnant and is thrilled by Laurence’s growing excitement, however the birth of twins springs a surprise that rocks the foundations of her world. While the boy twin is the spitting image of her husband, the girl twin has a darker shade of skin that throws Gwen into a panic. How it is even possible? Thinking back to an evening where she had too much to drink and was helped to her room by a native friend, Gwen comes to the conclusion she was raped and her children have been fathered by two different men. A distraught Gwen decides to keep the girl’s birth a secret, arranging for her to be raised in a nearby village but the emotional toll is a hard price to pay as her daughter continues to haunt her dreams.
The Tea Planter’s Wife is set on a tea plantation in Ceylon in the 1920s and Jefferies does a fantastic job of bringing the setting to life and exploiting the exotic beauty of the place. While the Hooper family are fairly prosperous, Gwen’s background couldn’t have been more different so her arrival on the plantation means we get to see everything with a fresh pair of eyes and the social injustices, while not the main focus on the story, add an intriguing layer. Unfortunately, Gwen’s story becomes increasingly predictable as time goes on and that predictability spoils the outcome somewhat.
When Gwen first arrives at the plantation, the presence of Laurence’s first wife is everywhere and as Gwen struggles to live up to the deceased wife’s ideal, the scenario reminded me a little bit of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, albeit without the more sinister elements. The Rebecca feel evaporates as soon as Laurence reverts back to the loving man Gwen first met, and the focus then falls on the pregnancy which was less interesting to me since I worked out what was going on very quickly. The idea of Gwen having been taking advantage of while drunk was never convincing enough for me, and although the secrets around Laurence’s first child are not revealed until much later on, the author just made it so obvious there was no real surprise there. Instead of feeling the sympathy I should’ve been feeling, I ended up being extremely frustrated with the situation because it all could’ve been avoided if the characters had just talked to each other.
For me, the most interesting part of the novel was the transition of Gwen’s character from the timid young bride to the mistress of the plantation who is tired of keeping secrets. The revelations definitely fall flat when you’ve guessed the mystery but there is a sense of real satisfaction when Gwen finally takes things into her own hands and stands up for herself. However, I did feel Laurence’s reaction was a little too muted, particularly considering it was his own heritage that was involved. The character I hated the most was Laurence’s sister, Verity, mainly because I never felt the author got to grips with her as a character. There were hints Verity’s love for her brother was more than sisterly but it was never fully explored and I never felt like I understood her motivations.
While I love books set in exotic locations, The Tea Planter’s Wife just doesn’t go deep enough into the social issues in Ceylon during this period. There is a lot going on beneath the surface but it is merely skimmed over and Gwen doesn’t spend enough time away from her family circle for us to get a real feel for the place. There are tensions between two groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamil, however there are no explanations as to why one group seems to be more socially acceptable than the other.