A cuppa and a cake with Dinah Jefferies – author of The Separation

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Dinah Jefferies is due round at any second and I’m just taking the cakes out of the oven. There’s a story behind that – the cake I was planning didnt really work out so I have had to think on my feet and make some more mixture and adapt the original design. blimey you don’t see this on master chef…

Well miracles do happen and the cakes have worked out fine – just time for  a little icing and Dinah will hopefully love them. I’ve misjudged the quantity needed and ended up with 24 so hope she’s hungry!

(door bell rings)

ooh that’ll be her now

Hi Dinah….ooh you’ve brought flowers! Aaah how kind…..

Dinah Jefferies author of The Separation
Dinah Jefferies author of The Separation

First things first. as we are having tea and cake today, what would we be having if this cuppa and a cake were happening in 1950s Malaya?

Well, as I was a child at the time, I wouldn’t have been drinking tea at all, although my parents would have been. I remember delicious coconut milk straight from the garden and a kind of banana flavoured cake. So shall we say tea and banana cake for today? With maybe some lychees and rambutans thrown in for good measure.

(funny you should say that…I did a little research of my own after I’d read your book and……)

img_3818 (banana cake ended up as banana cup cakes. There’s another 23 where that one came from so I hope you’re hungry!)

The inspiration for The Separation arose from a childhood spent in Malaya during the 1950s. How personal a story was it to write?

In some ways it wasn’t a personal narrative at all as the characters and the story are entirely fictional. But personal experience does come into it, and I drew on my childhood memories to bring Malaya and 1950s Britain alive. My mother’s black and white photograph albums helped too, as did her memories of what it was like for adults in Malaya. The most personal part was drawing on my own experience of the loss of my son to write Lydia’s story, though I think that also impacted on Emma’s experience of being separated from her mum and the country she loved. 

Dinah as a young girl in Malaya
Dinah as a young girl in Malaya (c) Dinah  Jefferies

The historical setting really is stunning but what was going on in the country at the time was so shocking. Do you think this is  period of history that is not very well documented in the West?

I think it is partly forgotten, though it was very important at the time. The Emergency was not a straightforward struggle for Independence, but a bid by the Chinese in the jungles to turn Malaya into a communist state. So from the British point of view, and many others too, the Emergency was actually a fight against communism, during which time a great deal was learnt about terrorism and how to deal with it. I don’t go into this so much in the book as I felt it would have complicated the fictional story too much.

On your website you say that ‘the setting is always where I begin’. We love that here at the booktrail! Why is setting so important do you think? What does it mean to you?

A typical malayan house where Dinah once lived -  -I borrowed this from her scrapbook
A typical Malayan house where Dinah once lived (c) Dinah Jefferies

For me the setting suggests everything, followed by the period. Once I think of a place that appeals to me, characters and stories start to form in my mind and a multitude of potential scenes begin to jostle for position. I love investigating a place and time, and am excited by finding out what was going on and who might have been there. I start with WHERE and WHEN and then move on to the WHO and WHAT. I always find it amazing how much story a setting can generate. The hardest part is whittling down the ideas into a coherent narrative.

Meleka today
Melaka today

Which places would you suggest readers visit or learn about to experience your book even more?

I haven’t been back to Malaysia because I didn’t want to lose my sense of the past, so I can’t really answer that as it is a very modern country now. Perhaps buy a travel guide and see what appeals. I was born in Malacca, as it was, Melaka now, and we moved to a different part of Malaya every year. My father’s job was to oversee the repair of postal services damaged during the Japanese invasion and that were, once again, being damaged during the Emergency. So we lived everywhere including Singapore, Johor Bahru, Penang and so on.

Which kind of food and drink would you recommend?

Among others there are three major ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese and Indian. So try something from each. Nasi Goring was my childhood favourite but Malaysian cuisine is highly complex and diverse. Have fun with a broad range of flavours that include lemongrass, coconut and shrimp paste. 

Can you tell us a bit more about the Colonial attitudes in Malaya at the time of your novel?

Colonial attitudes were very different and completely at odds with the way we think these days. Colonials displayed a sense of rightness, of superiority and of entitlement that we find difficult to understand. The Empire and everything that went with that was responsible for their world view and influenced the way they thought about ‘native’ races. My experience of Malaya wasn’t like that as I went to a multi-racial school and had friends of many different nationalities. By then it was the end of Empire and everything was crumbling. I am drawn to writing about crumbling societies that had once seemed so inviolable, and in particular the way that social change affects the lives of women and children. 

What fascinates you about Malaysia and would you like to go back one day?

It isn’t just Malaysia that fascinates me, it’s South East Asia and the Far East generally. I think being born in that region of the world and living there as a child has meant something has remained in my blood. I love the architecture and the style and every house I have lived in reflects that. I would love to go back and was invited to a book fair there this year. Sadly it coincided with a research trip to Vietnam and a book tour in Norway, so I couldn’t go. 

 a tea plantation in Sri Lanka
a tea plantation in Sri Lanka

Your next book – The Tea Planter’s Wife – is set in 1920s and 1930s Ceylon  -Sri Lanka. Can you tell us anything about this?


Well it’s finished and will be published by Penguin in May 2015 and Internationally too.  It’s set in a glorious Tea Plantation in the misty hill country beside a lake in what is now Sri Lanka. I hope the seductive setting with the scent of cinnamon and jasmine in the air will lure a reader in, though when a young girl is faced with a choice no mother should have to make, be prepared for heartbreak. You have been warned! After I finished the first draft I went to Sri Lanka to stay at a tea plantation and absolutely loved it. The research I did there really helped bring the novel alive and I have to say the cover for the book is gorgeous and I can’t wait to reveal it!

As for the ghost stories that inspired some of Emma’s parts of the book. Is there one that sticks in your mind or some story that you feel would entertain readers?

 I love the frighteners (an old fashioned name for spirits or ghosts) who lurk in cracks in the pavement. If you tread on them by accident they will bite off your toes. It’s a bit like our English version: if you step on a line you’ll be eaten by a lion, if you step on a square you’ll be chased by a bear. I found most of the ghost stories during my research and I used them to create Malaya as a land of myth and magic in my character Emma’s memory. She misses Malaya and once we came back to live in England so did I. Like Emma, my early years in the East will always be at the heart of me.

Thank you so much Dinah for popping over today and for sharing your stories and memories – some of them very personal so thank you.  You loved the banana cakes? Well that’s good as there are 20 left so I’ve packed the remainder in a couple of tupperware so you can take them home. Enjoy!

Visit Dinah via her website – http://www.dinahjefferies.com/

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.

Happy World Cup Literature Day!

Happy World cup literature day!

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Well if you don’t like football, today might mean nothing to you, but we at the booktrail say – ‘There is always a book to save the day!’. Feeling that you’ll be missing out on not just the football but the atmosphere of Brazil, the parties? the food or the stifling heat?

Then pick up a book and recreate it via fiction. A lot cheaper than even the cheapest ticket to Brazil. And why limit your journey to Brazil? Everyone seems to be going there – why not go somewhere unique and recreate the same feelings?

Our picks:

Recreate the heat – 

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The Separation by Dinah Jefferies – set in 1950s Malaya

With no wind to stir the air, Lydia felt damp beneath her clothes. She walked quickly, glancing up. Only distant specks of cloud littered the clear horizon, with not a sign of rain. She hoped on the local bus back to Malacca, and made her way through noisy streets, where, trapped within narrow alleyways, their air was already thickening with the smell of saltfish frying and  open latrines. 

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Recreate the atmosphere on the beaches –  and a few steamy moments too 😉 oh er…

Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh – set in Deia Mallorca

The sun drops low on the horizon and, with it, the distant hum of life starts up again. Families and couples weighed down with parasols and brightly patterned bags begin the trudge back up the hill road from the beach. A couple of mopeds weave in and out of the slow tide of bodies.

He moves through the water in slow, strong strokes. Jenn takes off her sunglasses, wipes them on her shirt and puts them back on. He pulls himself up onto a little plateau with effortless grace. He has his back to her. There’s no performance – he’s exhilarated out there.

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Sample the streets of Brazil and stand in awe of the statute of Christ – 

The Invisibles by Ed Siegle – set in Brazil

He walked through dark, thin streets which sloped into the beginnings of the hills, where the mansions of Santa Teresa stood silent, their shutters clammed, hoping not to be spotted by the million-eyed beast of the favelas. Beyond the mansions and favelas slept the forest. and above the forest stood the giant statue of Cristo Redentor, arms spread on the highest point, staring down on all of Rio.

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Fancy a party? Gatsby’s party must be the ultimate literary party – 

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – set in Long Island New York

I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited – they went there. They got into automobiles which bored then out to Long Island , and some how they ended up at Gatsby‘s door. Once there they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park..

The party gets underway –

By midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor had sung in Italian, and a notorious contralto had sung in jazz, and between the numbers people were doing stunts all over the garden, while happy, vacuous burst of laughter rose towards the summer sky.

Finally some ‘foreign food’ – 

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The vacationers by Emma Straub – set in Pigpen (Puigpunyent)  Mallorca

The grocery store in Palma was heavenly. Franny and Charles clutched each other at the head of every isle. The packaging was sublime, even on canned sardines and tubes of tomato paste. Being in a foreign country made even the smallest differences seem like art.

With so much fiction set in foreign lands, hot and sticky situations to get into, sand to feel between your toes, food to taste and parties to attend to all via the pages of a book, you don’t need to go to Brazil to see and feel the action!

Take a ticket – a library ticket and you can go anywhere you like and do anything you like without feeling like rubbish the next day.

Then take another book and go someplace else – far away from the TV, deep into your imagination.

Believe us, there is no place quite like it.