If Gwen were the superstitious sort, losing her purse and the all-important instructions telling her where to go and what to do before her ship landed in Ceylon could have been a harbinger of trouble. She had come to Ceylon to join her tea-planter husband, Laurence Hooper, who, to make matters worse, was not there to meet her. Fortunately, he was merely held up by car trouble, they are soon reunited and head off to his tea plantation to begin their life together.

And yet, there are troubles. Gwen does not know where to go and what to do. She gets lost, she offends the plantation foreman and many of the staff. She interferes with the workers out of humanitarian impulse. She does not understand the complexities of colonial rule that exploits and exacerbates ethnic conflicts between the Sinhalese and Tamil of Ceylon.

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies is essentially a historical romance set in colonial Ceylon between the wars. It tries to do more, to expose the racist heart of colonialism, with mixed results. It is also an addition to that ever-growing list of novels that exist because people do not talk to each other. There are secrets and suspicions and they never get discussed.

What happened to Laurence’s first wife? Why is their son’s grave hidden and neglected? What is her husband’s relationship with that overly friendly, flirtatious widow? Why does her sister-in-law Verity seem to hate her? And what is wrong with Verity anyway? Why does her husband dislike the painter Savi Ravasinghe? Why does it take nearly a decade of marriage before Gwen has a truly honest conversation with her husband?

The Tea Planter’s Wife tells a common romance story, a young woman marrying an older, successful man and feeling insecure in the marriage because of differences in sophistication and experience, the presence of competitors and the secrets of the past. By the end of the fifth chapter, the essential complications of the story were obvious and the story progressed much as expected.

Jefferies is a gifted writer, able to recreate time and place effectively. You can smell the air, feel the heat and hear the sounds of colonial Ceylon. She  also effectively exposes some of the ways the colonists used divide and conquer to create conflicts between the Tamil and Sinhalese which made it easier to exploit them as laborers by teaching Tamil in the schools so the Tamil got best government jobs, but giving Sinhalese the vote, but not allowing Tamil to vote.

Colonialism is at its most basic is one group of people going to another group of people’s country, stealing it, putting its people to work in poverty and expecting them to be thankful for the job. The only way people can justify doing it is by convincing themselves they are superior beings, that those they steal from just are not good enough, lazy, ignorant, untrustworthy and so on. That is on display throughout. Gwen, in seeing the Tamil and Sinhalese as individuals, as human beings, disrupts the peace. However, Gwen herself commits her greatest sin because of her own racism.

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I have mixed feelings about The Tea Planter’s Wife. Jefferies effectively captured my interest right from the beginning. From the first page through the first several chapters, I was swept up in the story. However, in the fifth chapter, there was a sour note when two people acted out of character for their position in society and for that time. It was so out of the time and place of the story that it telegraphed where the story was going, down a long-traveled road. Nonetheless, Jefferies goes down that road with skill and creates a moving and deeply emotional story.

As a romance, it is effective. As a story about racism and colonialism, it is also effective at exposing racism at its most basic and elemental, racism at its most devastating and cruel. It is at times heartbreaking and very moving. On the other hand, it was in many ways very predictable. And like so many romance novels, many of the women are petty and spiteful for no good reason. They are stock characters, not individuals. Character development is the weakest element. The most complex character is his sister Verity, who is pretty much the villain in the piece, but at least she had conflicting impulses. Gwen is pretty much the plucky, kind, naive romance heroine and Laurence the strong, enigmatic and incommunicative husband.

I have additional comments below, but they contain spoilers.

The Tea Planter’s Wife will be published on September 13th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.

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The Chocolate Baby or the Black Baby trope has been around for a long time. It is certainly indicative of how deeply racism is in the bones that Gwen consigns her dark-skinned daughter to poverty. The contrast between white Hugh and dark Liyoni could not be more stark, his privilege, her poverty. His health, her weakness. What disappoints me most, though, is that Liyoni basically plays the role of the Magical Negro. Yes, I know she is Indo-Asian, not African in heritage, but she plays the same role. She does not exist as an individual. She has no agency. Her only purpose is to transform the white people, her parents, to get them to finally talk to each other, to be honest for once in their lives.

And how gutless is it that she dies in the end. Of course, she does, because then they never really have to deal with Laurence’s heritage. It can remain their secret. If she could have lived, if she could have been a real person, her existence would be less an exploitive plot device. But as it is, she comes along, complicates matters, forces Gwen and Laurence to be honest with each other and conveniently gets out of the way. This was a major failure by Jefferies. She was trying to tell us something about colonial racism and instead revealed something more about contemporary racism.

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