Book review: The Separation, by Dinah Jefferies
Emma Cartwright is 11 years old when her father drags her and her younger sister, Fleur, from their home in Malacca, Malaya, onboard a ship to England. Puzzled and reluctant, she begs her father to let her leave a note to her mother, who is away visiting a sick friend. Her father takes the note and evasively assures her that their mother will be joining them "later".
Set during the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s, Dinah Jefferies' debut novel swings between Emma and her mother Lydia's perspectives. We follow Emma on her gloomy voyage to England, while Lydia returns to their house only to find it empty.
Immediately fearing the worst - the tension between the Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army means nobody feels safe - Lydia embarks on a journey across Malaya to track down her family. She's devastated when she's informed that they have perished in a fire, yet is unable to fully accept their death until she sees proof.
At the beginning of her travels, Lydia comes across a young, abandoned Malay boy, Maznan; she ends up taking him along with her. They provide each other with mutual support - a surrogate family of sorts. She also meets the exotic Adil: a magnetic, mysterious man who she's drawn to, yet is unsure whether to trust.
The plot moves at a nimble pace. Lydia never feels fully at home in Malaya: expatriates are no longer protected and guerillas lurk in the dense, menacing jungle that surrounds them. In her eyes it's an "impenetrable world of myth and magic, a place where colonial officialdom fought Chinese rebellion, where falsehood was rife, and having a white skin made you a red-haired devil".
Jefferies borrows from her own memories to create this work of fiction: she was born in Malaya in 1948 and at the age of nine she too left the country for England. She can understand how, having grown up in the tropics, it's Liverpool that feels cold and foreign to Emma: she doesn't fit in at school And without the protection of her mother, she falls victim to sexual abuse.
This is a worthy debut that not only provides insight on this dark moment in Malaya's history, but is also an ode to maternal love - to the powerful bond that links Emma and her mother from across the world. Lydia's maternal longing and sense of loss is made painfully authentic as once again Jefferies draws on personal experience: she lost her own son when he was 14 years old.
There is a symmetry to Emma's and Lydia's suffering as both fight to survive in a hostile environment. Both find support in men, both clutch elusive memories of their mothers. And while increasingly hard challenges are thrown their way, they discover they are more resilient than they realised.