Imagine that you’ve returned home from visiting a friend to find that your house is empty – your husband and children have disappeared, the servants have vanished and when you pick up the phone the line is dead. You set out in search of your family, determined to find them no matter what, but it’s not going to be an easy task because this is Malaya in 1955: a country at war.
This is what happens to Lydia Cartwright in this wonderful debut novel by Dinah Jefferies. As Lydia leaves the family home in Malacca and heads north to Ipoh believing that her husband (who works for the British Administration) may have been posted there, we discover that Alec and the two girls – Emma, aged eleven, and Fleur, eight – have gone somewhere else entirely. Will Lydia ever see her daughters again?
The Separation is divided into two distinct storylines told in alternating chapters. In one we follow Lydia as she makes the discovery that her children are missing. As she embarks on her nightmarish journey through the dangerous Malayan jungle, she faces terrorist attacks, gunfire and overcrowded buses and trains, as well as the possibility that she has been betrayed and deceived. In the other thread of the story we join Emma as she and Fleur try to settle into their new lives while coming to terms with the loss of their mother. Things are not easy for Emma and she too is forced to go through some terrible ordeals, all the while clinging to the hope that her mother is still alive and one day they will be reunited.
I thought the structure of the novel worked well; I enjoyed reading both Lydia’s chapters and Emma’s and never felt that we were spending too much time on one character at the expense of the other. Lydia’s story is more dramatic (and full of beautiful, exotic descriptions of Malaya) but of the two I think I preferred Emma’s. That could just be due to the fact that I felt closer to Emma as she narrates in the first person while Lydia’s chapters are written in the third person – or maybe it’s because although I’m not a mother I am a daughter so it was easier for me to identify with Emma. I did like and sympathise with both main characters, though, and desperately wanted them to be together again. Of course, I’m not going to tell you whether that happens or not!
I have never read anything about the history of Malaya (as it was still known in the 1950s before becoming Malaysia) so that was another aspect of the book I found interesting. The story isn’t weighed down with too much historical detail but by the time I’d finished the book I felt that I’d learned a little bit about The Emergency (the name given to the war) and what it was like to be a woman and a European living in Malaya during that period. I was interested to read that Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaya and lived there until the age of nine, which means she was able to draw on some of her own experiences and memories.
This was a very impressive first novel and I’m already looking forward to the second book from Dinah Jefferies, The Tea Planter’s Wife, which is going to be set in Sri Lanka.
Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of this book for review.