A child’s eye view

July 2015

On the eve of the publication of my second book, The Tea Planter’s Wife, set in Sri Lanka when it was Ceylon, I find myself thinking about the past and the way life influences the novels we write. This book, like my first, is set in a hot exotic country.

My sister, my mother and me: about 1951 in Malaya, now Malaysia

       

It was a delight to write. I love the period – the 1920s and the 1930s – and I loved the location. I stayed in a tea planter’s bungalow in Sri Lanka: the inspiration for the setting and the most heavenly place. I wanted that experience to underpin the novel, because it was so exciting for me, and as I wrote I was swept into a world and way of life very different from my own.

And yet one of the first pieces of advice you see when you begin to write is, ‘Use what you know’. In a way I did just that for my first novel, The Separation, set in the 1950s in Malaysia, and published last year. Today I’m thinking about the contradictions of growing up in a country divided by war.

As a child I thought guns piled up on the hall table was normal, and that everybody’s dad went to work each morning accompanied by two armed policemen. It was only later, after we’d moved back to England, that I realised my first nine years had been a little bit unusual.

I was born in August two months after three rubber planters were shot dead by Chinese communists arriving on bicycles. A state of Emergency was declared and, in an instant, the tropical lifestyle my parents had envisaged when they went out to Malaya became hazardous. Scarily my father’s car came under fire when he drove my mum to the nursing home to give birth to me.

Malacca Malaya

Melaka /Malacca, Malaya as it was when I was a child there

       

Ambushes, shootings, rubber plantations on fire, and roads peppered with land mines became normal. The War/Emergency between the Chinese communists hidden in the jungles, and the British Administration lasted twelve years. And yet, as a child, my life was one of colour and light, heat that I adored, wonderful monsoons with rain splashing a yard up in the air and fantastic tropical thunderstorms lighting up the sky. I loved all of it and missed it when we came to live in England.

Dinah, Book publicity 020

A very young Dinah in our garden in Malaya

       

I went to a culturally mixed school and made Chinese, Malay and Indian friends, as well as European. It was a free childhood, lived in flip flops and not much else. I loved visiting China Town with my amah: going to the amazing Chinese Circus: our holidays spent on deserted tropical islands with sandy white beaches and turquoise seas.

Even now I can smell the exotic scents of Malaya, and hear the shrieks of the monkeys as they climbed in through our kitchen window to pinch some food. I remember the bright butterflies, plants with leaves the size of frying pans, and the gardener shinning up the palms in our garden to cut down coconuts or pick a bunch of bananas, with us kids calling out which ones he should choose.

Elephants on a boat in Melaka docks

       

I drew on much of this when I wrote The Separation. Here’s what the bestselling author, Isabel Wolff said about the book: ‘It’s vivid, atmospheric and very exciting – you can smell the tropics, feel the drenching heat, hear the birds and the bullfrogs.’

It was idyllic for a child and yet several friends of my parents had died – mainly rubber planters who were the ones most at risk, living, as they did, on isolated plantations. There were terrible atrocities and many people faced desperate situations.

It was this contrast I wanted to bring to the The Separation, and I hope I convey some of the incredible beauty alongside the horror of war. It’s dual narrative because I wanted to write about the magic of Malaya through a child’s eyes, and the real dangers through her mother’s eyes.

The Tea Planter’s Wife relied less on my family’s history, though the experience of staying on a tea plantation provided lots of authentic detail. As well taking you on an emotional journey, I hope you’ll find the book vivid, and that it gives you a taste of the extraordinary luxury the British colonials enjoyed, but also the shame of the inequalities between the races.

Here’s what bestselling author, Santa Montefiore said about the book: ‘My ideal read; mystery, love, heart-break and joy – I couldn’t put it down.’

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