One of the best things about working in a bookshop is the sheer range of books. In fact there are loads of them which come in under my radar (since I spend a lot of my day playing with and stroking the non-fiction) and one of my favourite things is perfecting the art of scanning the blurb on the back of a book while I put it through the till. Although I have a bit of an aversion to following the pack I do love hearing from customers about their favourite titles and authors. Recommendations are very definitely a two-way street in my opinion (although no-one is going to turn me into a Dickens fan any time soon…) and I am often drawn towards titles which sell regularly and continuously. If that many people are buying a book I hadn’t previously been aware of it must have something going for it.
One of the books that I have seen pretty regularly since it came out last September is Dinah Jefferies’ The Tea Planter’s Wife – a historical novel set in Ceylon between the world wars, rich in detail of time and place. I guess I could have read and reviewed that but, since I am trying to cover new and forthcoming titles on this blog, I pounced instead on the author’s newest book. It seems to have many similarities with the earlier novel- there is a very strong sense of the sounds, sights and smells of the era and the main character is a very young woman struggling to find her place in the world – and this time the setting is Vietnam in the early 1950s.
Nicole is the daughter of a French politician and his (now dead) Vietnamese wife. She and her sister live a life of privilege and yet also one of sadness. Although her sister, Sylvie, is the model of French beauty Nicole looks like her mother: even as the younger of the two she is treated as a mere child by her family despite the novel opening with her 18th birthday. There are tensions within the family, largely surrounding the death of the girls’ mother, and, obviously, huge ones in Vietnam itself between the Viet Minh and the colonial French. There is also a love story and the tale of Nicole’s gradual acceptance of her Vietnamese heritage – quite a lot packed into a modestly sized book.
I found the story very interesting – I knew very little about the background to the conflict in Indochina and I learnt a lot (but quite painlessly) – and would certainly consider reading other books by this author. I have always enjoyed historical fiction but I have rarely ventured into anything later than the Victorian era. Maybe I need to remind myself that everything which happened before today is history…