Book review: The Separation by Dinah Jefferies

Dinah Jefferies’ rich and powerful debut novel has been brewing for decades… probably right back to her early childhood years in British-controlled Malaya.

The Separation by Dinah Jefferies
The Separation by Dinah Jefferies

Her experiences there in the early 1950s, including a Communist guerrilla war termed the Malayan Emergency by the colonial government, are the major source of inspiration for this vividly portrayed, high tension story of a mother torn apart from her two young daughters by conflict and betrayal.

Jefferies’ father worked in the development and restoration of the postal system in the aftermath of the Second World War, and memories of Malaya’s sights, sounds and smells have remained with her ever since.

The Separation, a heart-stopping rollercoaster ride from the steamy jungles of Malaya to the grey gloom of an English town, is a stunning first novel, full of fast-paced action, intense emotion and spine-tingling excitement.

Lydia Cartwright returns to her family home in Malacca in 1955 after a month’s absence to care for a sick friend but finds the servants have left, the house is empty and her husband Alec, a government administrator, and her two daughters Emma and Fleur, have disappeared.

When she discovers that all their clothes have gone too and no note has been left for her, she tries not to panic, desperately hoping that there must be a good reason for their sudden departure.

But she is all too aware that unrest is growing amongst the ethnic Chinese population and the nearby jungle is full of desperate, armed terrorists who only recently threw a grenade into a local marketplace packed with people.

When Alec’s boss tells her that her husband has been posted to the northern city of Ipoh at short notice, her only option is to make the two-day journey there in the family’s old and unreliable car.

Accompanied by seven-year-old mixed race boy Maznan Chang, whose family worked for the Cartwrights but has now been abandoned by his mother, Lydia sets out with just 15 dollars in her pocket and the prospect of travelling dangerous roads littered with land mines.


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Meanwhile, 11-year-old Emma and Fleur, eight, confused and frightened at leaving home abruptly without their mother, are setting sail for England and what their father says will be a new life.

Faced with an English winter in what appears to her a ‘frozen jungle’ that leaves windowpanes ‘iced with giant white lotus blossoms,’ the rigours of school life and worry over her mother, Emma searches desperately for answers.

And as past secrets and disturbing truths unfold, clever, loyal Emma still clings tightly to the ‘invisible thread’ that joins her heart to her mother’s because she knows that whatever might happen, ‘that thread would never be broken.’

Whether she is transporting us to the colourful Chinese quarter of Malacca with its ‘clickety-clack chorus’ of mah-jong players or whisking us away to colonial homes with coconut palms and golden hibiscus shrubs, Jefferies’ writing is vibrantly descriptive and superbly evocative.


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But, above all, she is acutely sensitive to the ties that bind together a mother and her child. Through the dual narrative of Lydia and her eldest daughter Emma, we glimpse both sides of a cruel divide and its lasting impact on the two characters’ lives.

The death of Jefferies’ own teenage son was also an integral component in the creative construction of The Separation, making the novel movingly personal in its depiction of a mother faced with sudden and devastating loss.

Written out of the past and straight from the heart, this is a story to read, relish… and remember.

(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)