Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Separation - Dinah Jefferies

Synopsis from goodreads:

What happens when a mother and her daughters are separated, and who do they become when they believe it might be forever? 

Malaya 1955. It’s the eve of the Cartwright family’s departure from Malaya. Eleven-year-old Emma can’t understand why they’re leaving without their mother, or why her taciturn father is refusing to answer her questions.

Returning from a visit to a friend sick with polio, Emma’s mother, Lydia, arrives home to an empty house ─ there’s no sign of her husband Alec, her daughters, or even the servants. The telephone line is dead. Acting on information from Alec’s boss, Lydia embarks on a dangerous journey across civil-war-torn Malaya to find her family.
The Separation is a heart-wrenching page-turner, set in 1950s Malaya and post-war England.​ 


I found this debut novel by Dinah Jefferies an emotional, atmospheric and gripping read. I was engrossed in the story from the very start. I found myself drawn deeply into the story and grew to care very much about the lives of Lydia Cartwright and her eldest daughter Emma in particular. These are the two main characters whose stories we follow throughout the novel, supported by a well drawn and diverse cast of other family, friends and accomplices in Malaya and in England.

The setting in Malaya (now Malaysia) is vividly conjured by Dinah Jefferies; the sights, the colours, the creatures, the jungle and the dangers that lurked thereabouts, the people depicted in evocative prose that provides an authentic background to Lydia's journey. It is not a place or time I knew much about and I felt transported there to the time of the Malayan Emergency and plunged back into history as I read. I read at the end that the author had spent some of her childhood in Malaya and I think her experience and sense of the place comes through vividly to the reader through her evocative writing. In addition to this there is the murky sense of wrongdoing lingering, which the characters have to uncover for themselves but much of which the reader is party to, making for a heartbreaking read at times.

I could feel the pain Emma felt at being separated from her mother, and I was so sad and angry about the things Lydia heard and was told about her daughters Emma and Fleur. Lydia was distraught and heart broken, her life had been pulled from under her, so that at the worst point;

'She felt herself slipping far away beneath the surface of life, where nothing could reach her, where there was no love, no pain, and there was no point in hoping.'

I loved how Emma found escape and solace in her creative writing;

'Sometimes I felt the world was too unfair, so when things got really bad I wrote stories. I loved the way you could make up anything you wanted.'

It was powerful stuff for me as a reader, to know what each of them was going through, and I was desperately willing things to come right, for the truth to be revealed. The structure was one I liked; chapters with Emma narrating in the first person, and then Lydia's experiences told of in the third person, and both voices held my attention, though I admit to warming most of all to Emma. My favourite passage from the book is one of Emma's thoughts; 

'...I imagined a fine line that wound halfway round the world. It was the invisible thread 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 thread would never be broken.'

Those words really struck me and felt so heartfelt and moving, they conveyed to me how strong the emotional attachment was between Lydia and Emma, that it could not and would not be broken despite them not being together physically. 

I don't want to slip into giving any spoilers as to how the tale unfolds; I would say that I liked in particular the characters Emma and Lydia and the very strong bond between them, and I admired Veronica on how she conducted herself. Lydia showed courage and kindness in caring for the young child Maz whose mother has abandoned him we are told. One character's deceitful behaviour was to me unbearably, terribly cruel and I could not wait for the moment when this might finally be exposed. There are various intriguing strands to the story, beginning right at the prologue, which made me wonder and which are brought together and resolved by the end of the novel in a successful way.

I found this an absorbing story that took me to a destination unfamiliar to me, opened my eyes to another place and time in our history, and it is a beautifully written story with plenty of tension and depth. A very good read throughout with a heart wrenching last hundred pages or so; I felt emotional towards the end as the last few stages of the story were played out. I had been deeply drawn into Emma's and Lydia's worlds and still think about them after closing the book. A gorgeous book cover too. Many thanks to the author for kindly sending me a copy of her novel to read and give an honest review


  1. I love books that can take a completely foreign place and time and make them feel known:)

  2. Hi Lindsay,

    Well! You certainly didn't waste any time in getting your blogging and reviewing mojo back, what a great review and another addition for my 'Want To Read' list!

    Looking back on the books I have read, I have visited many countries and learned about many cultures, however Malaysia isn't one of those places, so I shall be looking forward to the excellent descriptive writing you so positively enjoyed.

    Thanks for sharing,


  3. Terrific commentary Lindsay.

    This does sound very strong and perhaps even a little disturbing.

    Based on you comments it sounds as if there may be some mystery as to why the separation is happening. I can imagine that mystery irresistibly pulling the reader in.

  4. Sounds like my kind of read, this is definitely one I'll keep a look out for.

  5. Glad to see your back and into the swing of things Lynz. Fabulous review, I love how you use quotes to show were your coming from with your points of view. I would love to do that but when I think of something that I want to discuss, I forget to note it down. By the time I get to my actual review, its gone. I have missed stopping by and aim to be more regular. Hope your well friend.


  6. Sounds really interesting, I will keep a look out for it.
    Also wanted to let you know I'm doing a giveaway for 8 vintage children's books over on my blog, please pop in if you have the time. Barbara.

  7. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed this one Lindsay so that I was able to pop across and read your great review. :)


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