Book Review: The Tea Planter’s Wife – Dinah Jefferies

I’ve been trying to delve a little deeper into Sri Lanka’s history and culture by visiting the Museum and other cultural institutions around Colombo. It’s very factual but kind of dry after a while and there is no context really. After a lunch at Barefoot I wandered through the shop to find their bookshop, it was really eye-opening to see Sri Lankan authors on the shelves! I didn’t pick anything up that day but I did find a book left over by an Airbnb guest on my shelf at home called The Tea Planter’s Wife. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t tell you which guest left it behind, often before people fly out the discard their holiday reading to reduce their luggage weight. So I don’t know who to credit, but I wish I could.

The Tea Planter’s Wife is written by Dinah Jefferies, an English writer but one who nevertheless painted a beautiful picture of Hatton & its surrounds. The book follows Gwen Hooper who moves to Ceylon to live with her new husband. The author’s description of the fictional setting is so believable that it transports to you, or at least me, to my own experiences hiking in the area. Set in the 20s and 30s, in pre-independent Ceylon it nods to the class and ethnic tension of the era between Whites, Sinhalese and Tamils without making these issues the focus. Rather implying how mainstream views on colour negatively effects the main character and showing a progressive stance that was shared by few at the time.

The book also brushes the surface of mixing between races which was much more common in Sri Lanka prior to the opening of the Suez Canal. Through the character’s discoveries you come to realise that many of these distant ancestors are swept under the rug so not to blemish the facade of a perfect English family. The book is far from a fairytale, it speaks to the experiences faced by an expatriate in the 1920s although the feelings of confusion and difficulty faced are relatable to expats today. Much of the book describes how Gwen the protagonist learns how things are done in the already established household and society.

I can’t say anymore without spoiling the book but I do recommend it to anyone who is interested in being an expat in Sri Lanka.

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