Book review: The Sapphire Widow by Dinah Jefferies
Dinah Jefferies – much-loved author of a string of atmospheric historical romances set in some of the world’s most exotic colonial locations during the mid-20th century – returns with a sweeping and evocative tale of love, loss, betrayal and mystery.
This is not Jefferies’ first literary trip to Ceylon – her bestselling 2014 novel The Tea Planter’s Wife used the same location – but now she makes the place her own again with another stunning portrayal of the glittering island in the Indian Ocean, a place noted for its rainforest, arid plains, sandy beaches and ancient Buddhist ruins.
Jefferies, who grew up in 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.
The Sapphire Widow, a quietly dramatic and passionate tale of grief, self-discovery, romance and renewal, is a Richard & Judy Book Club Pick for 2018 and sees Jefferies on top form as she reprises some of the compelling characters we first met in The Tea Planter’s Wife.
In Ceylon in 1935, Louisa Reeve, the daughter of a successful British gem trader, and her handsome and charming husband Elliot live in a grand colonial mansion in the 300-year-old walled fort city of Galle.
To the outside world they seem to have it all but they both long for a child and after 12 years of marriage, two miscarriages and a stillborn daughter, Louisa is struggling to come to terms with her losses.
But while the thoughtful and very private Louisa feels guilt-ridden, the charismatic, thrill-seeking Elliot – who works in her father’s gem business – is becoming increasingly absent from home, spending much of his time at a rundown, coastal cinnamon plantation in which he has bought shares.
After his mysterious death, Louisa is left alone to cope with her grief. But she is forced to put aside contemplation of the ‘loveless life opening out before her’ when she discovers that Elliot owed a large amount of money and his creditors are queueing up for payment.
Desperate to unravel the truth behind his death, and disturbed by a menacing confrontation and a break-in at the house, Louisa visits the cinnamon plantation where he spent so much of his time and finds herself unexpectedly drawn towards not just its sense of ‘timelessness’ and ‘otherworldliness’ but also to the owner, Leo McNairn, a warm, compassionate and rugged outdoors man with a chequered past.
However, all is not what it seems at the plantation and when Elliot’s shocking betrayal is revealed, Louisa must finally accept that she didn’t really know her husband and that there were secrets and lies at the heart of their marriage…
Once again, Jefferies seduces us with her dazzling evocation of colonial Ceylon, capturing the very essence of the bustling city of Galle with its ancient walls built from coral and lime, the ethereal beauty of palm-fringed shorelines bordering the glittering ocean, and the ‘shady magic’ and pungent scents of the cinnamon plantation.
Louisa’s epic emotional journey from contented wife to grieving widow and independent woman battling to see a way through a pall of misery, secrets and loneliness in the hope of new horizons is beautifully explored in an age when a woman’s life was limited by both society and convention.
The Sapphire Widow is a heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting story, written with insight and empathy, and confirming Jefferies as one of our most exciting and creative historical novelists.
(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)