The Silk Merchant’s Daughter
by Dinah Jeffries
Publisher: Penguin UK
Publishing Date: 25th February 2016
Source: Copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Number of pages: 400
Genre: Historical Fiction
Dinah Jefferies’ stunning new novel is a gripping, unforgettable tale of a woman torn between two worlds…
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 trust in this world where no one is what they seem?
The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is a captivating tale of dark secrets, sisterly rivalry and love against the odds, enchantingly set in colonial era Vietnam.
So. Dinah Jeffries. I’ve heard so many prizes about her books and I was really desperate to see what it is all about. I haven’t managed to read „The Tea Planter’s Wife” yet, even though I have it on my shelf, but when the beautiful review copy of „The Silk Merchant’s Daughter” arrived, I put everything away and started reading this novel. It is a historical fiction, set in the French Indochina, touching upon many issues that bothered people living in those countries in those dangerous times, when the nationalist Vietminth fought the governing French, but with enough touch of women’s fiction in it as well.
Though right at the beginning I had huge problems to get into this book. It dragged on so much, there was almost nothing happening and I couldn’t understand what was the problem with Sylvie. I even had a moment that I wanted to put the book away for some time later but I convinced myself to give it a go. And – luckily – after this long and a little spiritless start the book gained pace and I found myself really hooked. The middle part of the story was, in my opinion, the most interesting part of it, even though I’d love to see more, much more, of Natalie’s escape from the Vietminth – in comparison to the long beginning this part of the story was so short, and it could be so interesting! Somehow, the end was also not my favourite part of the novel, I don’t know why, I can’t put my finger on it, but it seemed just too Disney – like in comparison with the whole story.
What I adored in this book is the setting. I mean, how often do you read books set in Vietnam? Me – not often. In fact, never. And I’ve read all those descriptions of nature, the Vietnameses, their everyday life, work, their traditions and the way they lived holding my breath – they were so incredibly vivid and the author brought all of this to life.
The author so wonderfully captured the dangerous times, and Nicole – as we focus on Nicole, as she’s the main character – feeling so insecure, as she was half Vietnamese and half French, and in the end she didn’t fit anywhere. The tension, the danger, the feeling of not being able to trust were so palpable through the pages and there were truly moments that I was cared to turn the page, as I was scared that something really bad is going to happen – and I also wasn’t sure from where and when the danger may come, as mostly I really didn’t know who I can trust and who I can’t, and after some time it made me a little tired and I started to feel paranoid. I thought I can trust a person, but then, only a few pages later, I found myself changing my mind, I found myself thinking and wondering. I didn’t know if I can trust Nicole’s father, Sylvie, Mark and I really wouldn’t have liked to be in Nicole’s shoes, all the time wondering who’s the friend and who’s the foe. The only person she could turn to was Lisa. I warmed to Nicole almost from the beginning of the book. I hated to see how much of a spare person in the family she felt, and how much both her father and her sister confirmed her in this belief. I liked the mentions that sometimes she was light – headed and quick – tempered, and that she made some mistakes, which only made her feel much more realistic and much more likeable than the perfect and stiff Sylvie. Moreover, Nicole was a very dynamic character, and we were witnesses to her changing mentally, to her maturing. The author really tried her out, tested her strength and powers that Nicole didn’t know she has in her. Sure, she made mistakes, but in my opinion those mistakes were connected with the fact that she, just like us, didn’t know whom to trust. We can see the transformation in her, see how she finds herself.
I couldn’t warm to Sylvie at all. There is a sibling rivalry, but I think Sylvie took it to totally different level, as she really aimed in making Nicole feel unwanted and for blaming her for their mother’s death. She was manipulative and she trampled over people. But even if it took me more time to warm to some of the characters, or not warm at all, they were all brilliantly drawn, with their own distinctive voices and they get under my skin, no matter if I wanted them to or not.
This book is about loyalty, trust, corruption, betrayal, hope and drama – a lot for one book, but the author has really managed to turn it into encompassing, hooking and different story. I was really immersed in the characters’ lives, I could feel the danger, and I fell in love with the descriptions – they were so vivid, and I had no problems to picture all of them or even to smell the flavours or to imagine the delicate quality of the silk Nicole was selling in her shop.
A really great idea was the outline of the times to the French Indochina history at the beginning of the book – as I’ve mentioned, I know about this time in the history but I didn’t go into detail about it so much and it is not as well known to me as some other parts of the world’s history, and it gave me a great insight and also I was able to come back to it when I wasn’t sure what and why was happening.
The author has brilliantly showed the atmosphere of the Vietnam’s countryside that she’s describing in the story. The descriptions of the surroundings, and also of the background characters, such as for example Yvette, Yves and Tran’s cousin were incredibly vivid and powerful, and it was just visible how much work and heart the author put in every detail. Also, the political situation of those time plays a great role in this novel, but Dinah Jeffries has managed to really skilfully weave it into the storyline, and even though I often found it a challenge to keep up with so much policy in fiction, this time I didn’t feel overwhelmed with too many facts, though I must admit there were moments I really didn’t know who is the bad guys and who is the good guys, and who was fighting who.
„The Silk Merchant’s Daughter” is incredibly clever, eloquent – the author has incredible way with the words – powerhouse of a book, full of emotions and difficult decisions, a love story in the brutal world of war and political tensions. The novel is a great mix of cultural issues, difficult times, trust and secrets, that created a hooking world that I gladly dived into. Dinah Jeffries has just won herself a fan – I’m really happy that I can get back to her two previous books, when waiting for her new novel.