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Two novels set in South East Asia, 1940s Java and 1950s Malaya

17th September 2014

These two novels by Isabel Wolff and Dinah Jeffries are both set in South East Asia, in essence the East Indies of the mid 20th Century. Both have great story lines that are set at a pivotal point in the history of two countries – Java, Indonesia, during the Second World War, 1940s, onward, and Malaysia, when colonialism in the region was waning, in the 1950s. the Dutch in Java and the British in Malaya. And both books vividly bring to life the feel and colour of each country in a way that truly transports the reader to the steaming jungle, the remorseless heat and the history that has fashioned each country since. Two well told backstories that will give just a bit of insight into the countries you can explore today. We review them in chronological story order.

Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff, set in Java, Indonesia.

IMG_2480Jenni, in modern day is ghost writing the memoirs of Klara, who looks back at her time of childhood on Java and subsequent internment in a Japanese POW camp. Jenni and Klara are ensconced in a beautiful part of Cornwall as they explore the story together. A mere child, Klara had to witness horrors that were imposed on the Europeans on Jave after the Japanese invasion. The degradation and sadism that Klara encountered is impressively rendered: the women are interred, with little food, hours of being counted (Tenko) under the stifling sun, and tackling the arduous task of eking out any rations that happen to come their way. Even having to endure a bread van touring up and down, exuding the wonderful smells of freshly backed bread, that the internees were never to savour – one of innumerable sadistic strategies devised to cow the inmates. And the women, cooped up together, had to find a way of co-existing and being mutually supportive. Klara’s very personal and heartbreaking story is broken up by Jenni’s own story, leaving her to reflect upon her a traumatic event in her past and how it impacts on her adult intimate relationship. It certainly gives the reader a bit of respite from the dire conditions of the camps. As their mutual stories continue, both women come to the realisation that they share similar and traumatic events in their lives, and by working together they can mutually ease their individual sense of loss. This is a poignant and captivating story that imparts a little history of Java, truly evokes the country, and beautifully renders the worlds of two women who happen to be thrown together with a common purpose.

The Separation by Dinah Jeffries:

IMG_2248The Separation has an arresting opening chapter from which the rest of the book flows. This is the story of one little family, Alec and Lydia Cartwright, and their young daughters Emma and Fleur, who have been living in Malacca, Malaya. This is Malaya when Independence was coming, the Emergency was in force and unrest was ubiquitous. The Rebels were making a stand and the British were feeling the heat.

There are glimmerings of a dark backstory that prompt Alec to uproot the girls and take them to England, whilst his wife is away upcountry tending a sick friend. The mystery surrounding his departure goes on to percolate and intrigue throughout the whole book. Lydia returns from her ministrations to find the Malacca house deserted, and is at a loss to know where her family has gone. She consults George Parrot, a patriarch in the British community, who informs her that her family has gone up to a posting in Ipoh, 350km away towards Georgetown. She is determined to follow them, assuming that they have had to leave in some hurry, and arrangements for her to follow on have been overlooked. At the point of departure a young boy, Maz is foisted on her for safekeeping by one of the women working at the house – he appears to be part Malay, part Chinese and his biological mother is said to be in trouble and cannot look after him for now. The two of them set off for Ipoh and into dangerous territory, as they encounter all kinds of obstacles on their journey north. But as their perilous journey continues, there is much loss and sadness on the way, a reflection of personal events in the author’s own life.

The richness and vibrancy of the people and the country are beautifully brought to life by the author, as the two make their difficult way through kampongs, jungle and rubber plantations. It’s hot, it’s humid and the smells and the noisy animals and insects all filter into the reader’s consciousness. As the book come to its conclusion, the tendrils weave together to bring the story lines together in an emotional conclusion.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

You can connect with Isabel via her website and on Twitter; and with Dinah via her website and on Twitter.

And do drop by and connect with the Team TripFiction via social media: TwitterFacebook and Pinterest and when we have some interesting photos we can sometimes be found over on Instagram too.



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