The Separation – 1950s Malaya – Dinah Jefferies

There are novels that are good for booktrails and then there are novels which are perfect – perfect as you don’t even have to go to the place they describe since you are there as soon as you turn the first page.

The Separation by Dina Jefferies is one such book. Stunning in its evocative detail, shocking for the sad events which take place and heartwarming for the innocents caught up in the whole affair.

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I felt tired and emotional after reading this book – all in a good way I assure you – and wanted to take you on a booktrail that will introduce you to this unique setting and thrilling read…..

Malaya 1950s

Imagine for one moment that as a mother you return home to find your husband and children missing. You are on your own and have no idea where they could have gone – not only that, but the servants have gone and the phone is dead.

Now imagine that you are an expat wife and your house in in the middle of the Malayan jungle, you are there as your husband has been posted there for work for the British Administration in Malaya. It’s the 1950s and the country is at war. It is a tense and steamy atmosphere there – the jungle is full of hidden dangers and it’s up to you to find out just what on earth is going on. Where are your children? Now can you imagine?

The journey Lydia faces from Malacca to Ipoh in search of her husband and children
The journey Lydia faces from Malacca to Ipoh in search of her husband and children

The story

Although the story is fictional, a lot has been inspired by and influenced by the real life experiences and impressions of Dinah Jefferies who was born in Malaya before moving to England at the age of 9. The lovely Dinah is popping over for tea and cake tomorrow – (as you’re reading this my arms are elbow deep in dough) so I’ll ask her more about that then. She’s bringing her scrap book of pics over too. Can not wait.

Let’s go to Malaya…

A jungle - fear hidden  in every dark shadow. Lydia must have faced so much hidden danger
A jungle – fear hidden in every dark shadow. Lydia must have faced so much hidden danger

Malaya in 1955 is a frightening and dangerous place to be.

In order to find her girls, Lydia, sets out on a nightmare journey to find her husband – she finds out from his ‘boss’ that he has been posted up country but her struggle to get there is fraught with danger  – not only in there the fact that an attack by guerrillas is ever present – but a white woman travelling alone in the jungle is perhaps even more so.

This is going to be no ordinary journey – the challenges of the heat for one is unbearable and the constant and utter paralsyig confusion as to what this poor woman can do.

Added to her grief, a malayan woman in a village asks her to take her child with her – she wants him to escape with her and take her to a resettlement village. The two become unwitting travelling companions in search of answers..

A typical malayan house where Dinah once lived -  -I borrowed this from her scrapbook
A typical malayan house where Dinah once lived – -I borrowed this from her scrapbook

The heat, the anguish the utter hell on earth…

This was not how she expected Malaya to be. Alex hadn’t mentioned  the endless battle against humming birds mosquitoes, nor the wet heat, which approached like a solid wall – nor the war they called the Emergency

It’s not just Lydia’s voice that we hear however. At the same time as we panic with Lydia, we cry at the injustice of a confused little girl, Emma, trying to make sense of why mummy is not with them. What is daddy not saying? Why are they travelling so far away? why are the travelling to England? Emma is afraid – (the stories of what she hears and remembers are Malaysian childrens tales and are listed at the back of the book) 

Our gardener used to say beware of the lure of the dusk, when demons would come out to play in the shadows of the long grass.

They only came out if somebody was lost

And if you followed them, even once, you’d never be seen again.

A jungle maze as Lydia would have faced
A jungle maze as Lydia would have faced

The Separation is essentially a story about the strong bond between mother and children. The two voices tell of separate yet interweaving fates and we learn from Emma things that we wish we could shout out so that Lydia might find out. Scenes set in England are cold and lonely – in direct comparison with the humidity and stress of Malaya -effective and a real emotional pull.  Given the setting and the background, the separation takes on a whole new meaning. It gives the novel an added layer of heart and soul. In Emma’s words – 

And Though Mummy wasn’t really there, I imagined a fine line that wound halfway around the world. It  was the invisible threat that stretched from west to east and back again; one end was  attached to my mother’s heart and the other to mine. And I knew whatever might happen, that the thread would never be broken.

The history of Malaysia is also where the novel excels – I knew nothing of what the time of ‘The Emergency’ was like and now I feel I at least can imagine what it must have been like for a woman fearing the changes in a country. Details and background are never over done – only snippets given here and there to mirror the confusion of those at the heart of it. The underlying fear is woven through simple understatements for maximum effect – 

Lydia’s bus stops in the middle of the jungle –

A priest, waiting in the crowd as they approached turned to her with a smile, a pistol snug in its holster at his waist. Once the sight of it would have made her shudder, now everyone had a gun and  she hardly raised an eyebrow. The dusty air, and how they’d breathe it if the bus didn’t take them were far more of a worry.

Then we hit against the real crux of what lies behind the Emergency – 

There’s nothing left for the Chinese in Malaya,’ he said. Only the camps or the horror of living on the inside.

Malaya in 1922. (wikipedia) The unfederated Malay states in blue The Malaysia Federated Malay States (FMS) in yellow The Straits Settlements British Straits Settlements in red
Malaya in 1922. (wikipedia)
The unfederated Malay states in blue
The Malaysia Federated Malay States (FMS) in yellow
The Straits Settlements British Straits Settlements in red

And the danger that Lydia finds herself in….the setting acting as both captor and captive – 

The idea of the new villages was to isolate the terrorists from their supporters. Lydia knew that, but was still socked by sharp bamboo spikes embedded in a moat surrounding three, parallel, chain wire fences and, at intervals, huge observation towers.

The blackness was  a time for throats to be slit soundlessly and for children to be stolen

The whole country is being  torn apart by rebels, Lydia is running out of money and hope. Meanwhile Emma is trying to settle in in England. But the two far apart are in danger and an escalating situation that neither of them could have imagined. And what they do when things implode will be the test of them all.

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A very fine, poignant novel, with the heartbreak of a mother searching for answers. A n exotic setting with fear and  danger at its core. All in all, this is a journey to Malaya and a very fine debut full of authenticity and a level of evocative descriptions not seen before. 

This will stay with you long after you have turned the last page.

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