This is the second Dinah Jefferies novel we’ve picked for our book club. The first, The Tea Planter’s Wife, was in the bestseller lists for months and I’d put good money on The Sapphire Widow repeating that success.
Once again this is a historical story, set in 1935 Ceylon. Jefferies knows of what she writes: she was born in Malaya in 1948 and grew up in what would turn out to be the last years of the British Empire. Personal experience and impeccable research combine to give her books real authenticity and dramatic punch.
The sapphire widow in question is Louisa Reeve, a beautiful young woman who, when we first meet her, appears to have it all. She is married to the intensely good-looking Eliot, who trades in sapphires, and they live gilded lives in their colonial mansion. Louisa wears expensive clothes and perfume and is deeply in love with her husband.
But despite appearances, there is a blight on her happiness. Louisa desperately wants children. After successfully conceiving, she has suffered a string of miscarriages. When we meet her, it seems as if her chances of having a baby are very slim.
And gradually we discover other problems. Yes, she loves Eliot and is still hugely attracted to him after years of marriage, but there’s a serpent in their apparently paradise of a marriage. Eliot, we learn, may not be quite what he seems.
I loved the period atmosphere of this book, and the sense of a vanished time. What privileged lives these colonial folk led, pampered, cosseted, protected and rich.
But for Louisa, it’s an existence built on foundations of sand. Her beloved Eliot keeps disappearing, without proper explanation. What is he up to, and with whom? He also has a fondness for whisky and gambling, despite promises to steer clear of both, and he’s lost a small fortune at cards.
Then comes the day when he tells his wife he is going sailing. It’s a lie. And that evening, the local police inspector arrives at Louisa’s house. He has terrible news. Eliot has been killed in a car crash, while driving to the city of Colombo. The body is so badly injured that the police need time to ‘tidy him up’ before Lousia is allowed into the mortuary to formally identify her husband.
Struggling with her overwhelming grief and shock, she is nevertheless determined to get to the bottom of what has been going on. It is not giving too much away to say that she uncovers a shattering secret behind her marriage: it upends her world and leaves her questioning everything she thought she knew. Meanwhile mysterious and threatening men turn up on her doorstep. Who are they, and what do they want?
Will Louisa find the answers she so desperately seeks? And after such a devastating betrayal, can she ever learn to love again?
Read an Extract from The Sapphire Widow by Dinah Jefferies
A cinnamon plantation
His slight build makes it difficult to tell his age, but sitting under the hanging branches of the banyan tree he looks lonely and, as sunlight filters through the glossy leaves, it dances on his thin limbs. This boy, more wood sprite than child of flesh and blood, is the kind of child a mother longs to wrap her arms around. He selects a pebble and, with a furrowed brow, concentrates, then throws it to see how far it will go. Satisfied it’s flown further than the one before, he clambers to his feet and walks around the little rhododendron- enclosed clearing, scuffing his sandals in the twigs and leaves that crackle and splinter beneath him.
He picks a pale apricot blossom and buries his nose in its soft, fruity fragrance. This one is for his mother.
He listens to owls ruffling their feathers and shifting in the tree, watches a striped squirrel race up a tree trunk, and then he sniffs the air – citronella, burnt earth, the aroma of cinnamon, and a tang of salty ocean he can almost taste. He picks a pale apricot blossom and buries his nose in its soft, fruity fragrance. This one is for his mother.
He watches a scarlet basker flitting from one leaf to another and wishes he had brought his book of insects with him. He’s never seen this one before except in the book, along with other dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies. He knows there are thousands of them in Ceylon– this place his mother calls a pearl.
As a fresh breeze blows he feels it on his arms and his skin tingles. It’s the best place in the world, this glittering sun-sparkled forest, and he eagerly awaits a walk with his mother, in the evening when it’s cooler. She finds the heat of the day tiresome, but he knows all the shady places and there’s always somewhere cool to hide. But then a change comes over him and a trace of sadness darkens his face. Although he’s content playing alone, something in him longs for more, and he shivers from an uncomfortable feeling of guilt.
The moment passes.
That’s the phrase he hears all the time: ‘given our circumstances’, it’s probably not a good idea. Or, ‘given our circumstances’, perhaps we’d better not.
When he walks with his mother, her scent wraps around him, and he enjoys calling out the names of birds for her to laugh in pretend amazement that he knows so many of them. His mother doesn’t laugh enough, though it’s hardly surprising, he thinks, given their circumstances. That’s the phrase he hears all the time: ‘given our circumstances’, it’s probably not a good idea. Or, ‘given our circumstances’, perhaps we’d better not.
He has climbed almost to the top of the hill now, his favourite wide- open place. Here he can see for miles and if he half closes his eyes he can almost feel the ocean. He imagines the cool waves breaking over his burning skin; sees himself running on the beach as fast as he can with the wind blowing in his too- long hair; pictures the fishermen in the early evening before the sky turns pink and the sea turns lilac.
He’s startled by a rustle coming from the trees and stands still to listen. It’s probably a toque monkey, he thinks, or one of the langurs with the very long tails. You mustn’t try to befriend or feed toque macaques, his mother says. If you feed them they think you are subordinate. It means they think you are lower than they are. Sub- or- din- ate. Subordinate would be bad. Nobody wants to be less important, do they?
Book Club Questions for The Sapphire Widow
1. Why do you think the author chose to locate the book in 1930s Ceylon? What effect does the location have on the characters? Would you have liked to live in this time?
2. What did you think of Gwen’s reaction to Elliot’s shocking betrayal? What would you have done in her position?
3. What was your favourite moment in the novel?
4. Have you read other books by Dinah Jefferies? If so, how does this book compare? If not, does this book make you want to read others?