Location, location, location. That is what our real-estate agents always told us when we were purchasing homes. Location is what attracted me to this story. Books set in Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon during the time period of this book) don’t come along every day. Unfortunately, books depend upon a bit more than just a great locale.
Rachel Varuni lives in a small house on the border of one of Ceylon’s large tea plantations. She is the daughter of a tea planter and a “local.” Rachel and her mother are happy with their life even if it is one of hard work and frugality. All of that changes when the letter comes. Unable to read the English writing they take it to the local school teacher who translates it for them, advising that it is a missive from a lawyer. Rachel has a benefactor who will pay for her education at the exclusive Hillcrest School in Nuwara Eliya. Rachel immediately sees this as a solution to all her difficulties. In her villages she is seen as an oddity, a doppelganger who is neither white nor Ceylonese and who is in many ways an outcast. She is certain that once she has the clothes, manners and education of a tea planter’s daughter she will be accepted into that society.
Rachel works extremely hard at school and in a shockingly small amount of time is at the head of her class. She is surprised to find that she is not whole heartedly embraced into the European community but that racism exists here too. Fortunately for the first part of her schooling she has strong advocates in the headmistress and teachers. Her beauty and ability to excel at almost everything placed before her helps her to turn a blind eye to the racism around her and keep her focus on preparing for her Oxford entrance exams.
That changes in her last year of school when she learns that the money to send her to Oxford has been lost through poor investments. Adding to her trauma is a change in head mistress. Without her powerful protector things become dangerous for her at the school and it is with some relief that Rachel accepts a position as a governess to a young girl on an isolated estate. While there she meets a man from a neighboring plantation whom she had once known at school. But their separate stations in life and the fact that he is married to another woman make their feelings for each other forbidden. Was Rachel only lifted from her simple village life to serve as an exalted servant? Or could her future possibly hold more?
I’ll be blunt here and say that this novel thoroughly confused me. Rachel abhorred prejudice and yet she never once befriended the Ceylonese servants in the places where she worked, nor did she maintain any kind of relationship with her mother. In fact, she forgot the language of her youth and had to have an interpreter help her the few times she interacted with her mom after going to Hillcrest School. Rachel also seemed to embrace the idea of the British tea planters being masters of the island completely. I felt uncomfortable with this facet of the book. Given the time frame was one where the sun had indeed started to set on the British Empire I felt that at least a bit of questioning of the old world order would have been appropriate. During the 1920s and 1930s there was a great deal of political unrest on the island as the Sinhalese and Tamil people sought reform. Yet none of that was reflected in Rachel’s life. I also disliked the fact that Rachel seemed to feel that her education and European heritage separated her from her mother’s people. Her concern regarding bigotry never seemed to extend beyond herself.
In fact, nothing seemed to extend beyond herself for Rachel. She had no strong feeling for her friends or the people she worked with. She was certainly able to leave her mother and village life behind rather easily. Rachel’s concern as a child was ensuring the best life for herself and she never waivers from that style of existence. I don’t think that is how the author meant to draw the character but whether by intent or not, everyone in this book is rather one dimensional.
The love story was one that was confusing as well. We rarely see Rachel with her love interest and their encounters are rather stilted and juvenile flirtations. Much takes place beneath the surface; we know that they long for each other but beyond the physical attraction we don’t really know why that is. Given that both had so much to lose in pursuing their romance I would have liked to have seen, well, some romance. The resolution to their issues was melodramatic and raised more questions than it answered.
We are not given any political history – not even WWII which takes place during the book and which would have affected the Europeans on the island – but we are given lots of information on tea planting. That portion of the book was given as a sort of lesson but still made for interesting reading.
I really wanted to love this story. The premise with its unique setting and unusual protagonists sounded very promising. Unfortunately the author was unable to fulfill that promise and I am unable to recommend this story.