From award-winning author Ann Bennett, comes a heart-breaking story of love and loss set in World War 2 Burma.
In 1980, Edith Mayhew, proprietor of the Tea Planter’s Club in Calcutta, is preparing to sell up after years of decline. She thinks back to 1942 when her sister Betty vanished having fled over the mountains from Burma to Assam to escape the Japanese invasion. Whilst packing, Edith comes across some letters which may hold clues to Betty’s mysterious disappearance.
The discovery propels Edith on an epic journey to Assam, where she is forced to face devastating secrets of love and betrayal from the war years.
Edith and Betty had grown up close, as their parents were too busy drinking and enjoying themselves to look after the girls, but Edith, the eldest was the sensible one, while Betty was the beauty. Arriving in Calcutta in 1938, a terrifying stabbing in the street drives them into The Tea Planters’ Club, where Gregory, the kind, courteous, British owner provides them with a suite. The two young women seek employment and reasonable accommodation, but meeting Robert Furnvall, a handsome, wealthy businessman from Rangoon, quickly changes Betty’s plans. She flirts outrageously with Robert, ignoring Edith’s feelings and within a week they have married and set out for Burma. Edith hides her sadness, working hard in a boring office but when she decides she can no longer afford to stay at the Tea Planter’ Club, Gregory asks her to marry him and help him running the hotel. Theirs is a marriage of friendship and respect but in Rangoon, Betty finds her new husband boring and the colonial life tedious.
Both women are aware that war is approaching the East as the Japanese army invade Malaya. Both Gregory and Robert join the forces but while Edith maintains the Club for army officers, Betty is conducting an illicit affair. Soon Betty has to flee Rangoon as a refugee and her experiences change her character dramatically. Edith anxiously awaited her sister’s arrival in Calcutta but now in 1980 she still wonders what happened to Betty. As she begins to pack up the hotel, she finds a hidden letter which might help her find out more. She travels up to Assam to a tea plantation where refugees were seen in 1942, hoping for news.
It was difficult to put this gripping story down, as Edith wins our sympathy immediately and yet gradually we find qualities in Betty which even she was unaware of. The story describes the frustrating life of many of the colonial wives, seeking a purpose or idling their lives away with gossip and partying, while the native populations long for independence. As the dramatic events of World War Two destroy their way of life, relationships become the most important thing. There is suffering and sadness within this novel but also a great mystery is solved in a satisfactory way with the promise of happiness for those who are left.
The Tea Planter’s Club is available at Amazon UK
My review of The Planter’s Wife by Ann Bennett