The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies - book review: Suspicion, intrigue and danger are never far away

A young woman’s hunt for her missing sister in 1930s Burma takes her deep into the dangerous heart of a 25-year-old mystery… and into the febrile atmosphere of a restless country eager to throw off its colonial rulers.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 23rd April 2019, 3:29 pm
Updated Tuesday, 23rd April 2019, 3:34 pm
The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies
The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies

Prepare to have your senses well and truly ignited in the sweeping, sun-drenched new novel from master storyteller Dinah Jefferies, much-loved author of a string of atmospheric historical romances set in some of the world’s most exotic locations during the mid-20th century.

Jefferies, who grew up in British-controlled Malaya, has become the queen of colonial climes, filling the pages of her novels with lush descriptions of the people, the places and their awe-inspiring landscapes whilst delivering exquisitely observed, sensual stories of powerful emotional intensity.

Since her first novel, The Separation, was published five years ago, Jefferies has fast become a highly popular, best-selling author, penning powerful and thrilling novels that reflect her own experiences in a British colonial family.

From the heat and tensions of Malaya, where she was born and spent her early years, to the exotic beauty of colonial Ceylon, the tumult of Vietnam in the 1950s, and the centuries-old traditions of India, Jefferies has brought us exciting stories steeped in the amazing landscapes of faraway countries on the cusp of seismic changes.

In The Missing Sister, we are whisked away to the oppressive heat and glittering colours of Rangoon in 1936, the city ‘where dreams were made’ but also a place where East meets West, where resentment simmers, where gossip is rife, and where secrets fester in dark and dangerous quarters.

It’s 1936 and 23-year-old Belle Hatton has left her home in Gloucestershire for an exciting new life far from home. A glamorous job as a nightclub singer awaits her in Rangoon and she is looking forward to making new friends.

But Belle has another reason to travel to Burma… she is haunted by a mystery from the past. When her father died a year ago, she found some 25-year-old newspaper clippings among his belongings, revealing that her parents were leaving Rangoon after the disappearance of their baby daughter, Elvira, from her pram in the garden.

Belle settles into her new life and makes some sophisticated and influential friends, but she remains desperate to find out what happened to the sister she never knew she had. And when she starts asking questions, she is confronted with unsettling rumours, malicious gossip, and outright threats.

Oliver Donoghue, a handsome, easy-going American journalist who reckons that ‘the days of the British are numbered,’ promises to help her, but an anonymous note pushed under the door of her room warns her not to trust those closest to her.

As unrest erupts all around her, Belle survives riots, intruders, and bomb attacks, but nothing will stop her in her mission to uncover the truth of her parents’ lives in Rangoon. Can she trust her growing feelings for Oliver, is her sister really dead, and could there be a chance Belle might find her?

Reading The Missing Sister is like taking a gripping trip back in time to the historic heart of Burma in the turbulent 1930s as civil disobedience grows and angry students rebel against the imposition of British colonial rule.

Against this fascinating social and political backdrop, Jefferies weaves a vibrant story brimming with mystery, emotion, secrets, suspense and romance as Belle sets out to uncover the truth of her sister’s disappearance, and work out just who she can trust.

Using a dual narrative, which allows readers revealing glimpses into the life of Belle’s troubled mother Diana, this compelling and meticulously researched story offers striking and moving insights into the impact, and repercussions, of mental breakdown.

Suspicion, intrigue and danger are never far away but once again, it is the landscape rendered so breathtakingly real and vital that lingers long in the memory. From the show-stopping splendour of Rangoon’s gold-coated Shwedagon Pagoda and the spectacular beauty of the Irrawaddy River, to the ringing of ancient temple bells and the scent of jasmine hanging in the air, this is a country brought to glorious life by a masterful storyteller.

(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)