I had often seen Dinah Jefferies’ novels in bookshops and supermarkets, and wondered if they would be my cup of tea. I love Asia, and historical fiction, but I wasn’t sure if they would be a bit ‘Mills and Boon-like’. The title of her last two novels have also acted as a slight deterrent (The Tea Planter’s Wife, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter – why do woman have to be qualified by their relationships to men?). In the end I was attracted to a Goodreads giveaway, which I subsequently won, and had no reason not to read this book.
1952, French Indochina. Since her mother’s death, eighteen-year-old half-French, half-Vietnamese Nicole has been living in the shadow of her beautiful older sister, Sylvie. When Sylvie is handed control of the family silk business, Nicole is given an abandoned silk shop in the Vietnamese quarter of Hanoi. But the area is teeming with militant rebels who want to end French rule, by any means possible. For the first time, Nicole is awakened to the corruption of colonial rule – and her own family’s involvement shocks her to the core…
Tran, a notorious Vietnamese insurgent, seems to offer the perfect escape from her troubles, while Mark, a charming American trader, is the man she’s always dreamed of. But who can she rust in this world where no one is what they seem?
The setting of this book is brilliantly painted. I’ve been to Vietnam, though not to Hanoi where the majority of the novel takes place, and Jefferies brings the city to life. The plot of the book is also gripping. I had no prior knowledge about how the French colonial rule came to an end but the writing incorporates the history effortlessly. I trusted every detail. There was a little bit of me wishing that the author could have made the book a little grittier, but I appreciate that her readership would probably not have wanted this. There were executions, brothels, rape, murder, but all lightly written so as not to offend.
What I struggled with the most was Nicole herself. She seemed very immature and a bit cold: even when some horrific stuff is happening around her she cries for a bit and then gets over it. There is no emotional depth to her which I found to be an issue. At one point she runs away to join Tran and the Vietminh, and goes through an immense ordeal after the insurgents decide that anyone of mixed race cannot be trusted. There was barely a mention of her suffering, and the six months she spends up in the north is mainly skipped over leaving me feeling slightly cheated as potentially this could have been an interesting way to develop Nicole’s character. The only reason for this section to exist really was to get her out of the way for a period of time to set up the last act of the book. She was also far too trusting, and completely reliant on other people to make decisions for her. I had the impression that if left to her own devices she wouldn’t have survived.
Overall, this was a light and enjoyable read. I’d recommend it from a historical point of view and for Dinah Jefferies recreation of 1950s Vietnam, and the story itself works. Just skim over some of the more expositional sections and ignore Nicole’s passivity!