Reviewed by Emma Crowley
What happens when a mother and her daughters are separated; who do they become when they believe it might be forever?
1953, the eve of the Cartwright's departure from Malaya. Eleven-year-old Emma can't understand why they're leaving without their mother; why her taciturn father is refusing to answer questions.
Lydia arrives home to an empty house - there's no sign of her husband Alec or her daughters. Panic stricken, she embarks on a dangerous journey to find them through the hot and civil-war-torn Malayan jungle - one that only the power of a mother's love can help her to survive.
The Separation is the debut novel from Dinah Jefferies and what a debut it is. This book reads like Dinah has been writing for years, it makes me wonder what took her so long to start writing? This outstanding novel had me hooked from page one, right from the opening chapter the story moves along at an incredible pace right up until the satisfying conclusion. I had to stay up late into the night rapidly turning the pages to finish this, which is always a sign of an excellent book.
The Separation is set between 1950’s Malaya and Great Britain and is essentially the story of the unbreakable bond between a mother and her children. Despite upheavals and tragedy it can never be broken only strengthened .The main character Lydia returns home after caring for a sick friend to find her husband and children have all vanished without trace leaving no clues not even a note. Even the servants have left. What has happened in Lydia’s absence that causes her husband to uproot his family without prior warning? From here on the story is told from two viewpoints- Lydia and her journey to discover where her children are and Lydia’s elder daughter Emma. Normally in a novel we often only hear the viewpoint of one character but this was cleverly done so whilst reading Lydia’s struggles, we were also able to find out what had happened to Emma and her sister Fleur. I loved this element of the book, as we felt for Lydia and experienced a wide range of emotions with her but at the same time we knew where Emma was and how upset and confused she felt at being torn away from her mother and uprooted to Britain without any explanation. There was many a time I wanted to shout at Lydia things Emma had told us as this would have made her search much easier and bearable.
Lydia embarks upon her search for answers through Malaya and I felt for her every step of the way. I cared for Lydia and really understood all that she was going through (and it’s not often I can say that about a character) rooting for her to find the reason for such a devastating betrayal. Lydia is alone in Malaya at a very dangerous time, she is also forced to take an orphaned young boy called Maznan with her which only serves to further remind her of the loss of her children. Lydia is told her family have been transferred to Ipoh a town many miles away through dangerous jungle and country. Putting her fears aside she commences her journey meeting her old flame Jack along the way who offers his help. But there are hidden forces at work and Lydia is told her family have all perished in a fire at Ipoh. Naturally Lydia is devastated and must come to terms with her grief and build a new life for herself with Jack if at all possible. But things don’t always turn out the way we want them too, not giving too much away here but my heart ached when Lydia experienced her second betrayal in such a short space of time.
The descriptions of Malaya were wonderful, they really made you feel like you were right there with Lydia every step of the way experiencing the intense heat and dangers around every corner during a time of such unrest in Malaya. These descriptions were in stark contrast to those of Britain and what Emma was going through as her sister Fleur seemed to settle down without any fuss but Emma being older knew all was not as it seemed. Many forces intertwine to keep the family apart but piece by piece the story does come together to deliver a richly pleasing ending.
My only complaint is that I have to wait another year until Dinah’s second novel ‘The Tea Planter’s Wife’ as she has now cemented herself as one of my favourite authors. The Separation is my book of the year so far and being an outstanding emotional rollercoaster of a story it will take quite a book to beat it.
I'd like to thank Emma for offering to review from her own copy of The Separation.