The Separation is one of those wonderfully escapist novels that packs in an atmospheric setting, in this case, 1950s Malaya. It conjures up the somewhat dissolute expat way of life, the gin-slings and infidelity, which was probably just a way of coping with the heat. It reminded me a little of those old black and white movies where you can hear jungle drums and crickets in the background while the plantation owner mutters, The natives are restless tonight.
Although half of the novel is set in England. This is because it is told from the point of view of two main characters. First there is Lydia Cartwright, who with her Rita Hayworth looks, has been a bit naughty and started an affair which she hasn't kept very secret. She has been visiting a friend who is ill, when she returns to find hubby Alec and her children gone, the house left empty with no note, so she begins to panic.
The British District Officer tells her Alec and her young daughters have gone north to Alec's new posting in Ipoh, where the natives truly are restless - with Communist insurgents undermining British rule with guerilla tactics. So Lydia, must make the dangerous journey to join her family alone, even having to borrow cash from her worldly friend, Cicely, as Alec has taken most of their money.
We read about Lydia's desperate journey where she witnesses atrocities when her bus is attacked. She finds herself taking care of a small boy, Maznan, whose mother has joined the rebels, when a striking man of mixed race joins her and helps her; I imagined a kind of Yul Brynner.
But while Lydia is making this arduous journey, her daughters, Emma and Fleur, are travelling by cargo ship with Alec to England. This part of the story is narrated by eleven-year-old Emma, who with her wild red hair reminds her father too much of Lydia and as such she never seems able to please him. On the journey the family becomes friendly with amicable Veronica, who seems to have an attraction for Alec, and her creepy brother, Mr Oliver, who has wandering hands.
In England, Emma finds it hard to settle in the cold climate and cramped house that they share with Alec's parents. Grandma fortunately is a kindly old soul but Emma is always in trouble, until boarding school seems to be the only solution. The school, run by nuns, is particularly bleak, and Emma finds it hard to cope with bullying on the one hand, and the harsh regime on the other, but at least she makes a friend in perpetually naughty Susan. On top of everything, her father has led his daughters to believe that their mother has abandoned them and is missing, believed dead.
There is a lot going on in the story - we have Emma's dealing with adolescence and her missing mother, who she never really gives up on, amid difficult relationships with the adults in her life. And then there's Lydia's desperate search for her family, and a terrible bombshell that causes her to teeter on the edge of madness. How she copes and pulls herself together when one awful thing happens after another gives her a chance to grow strong and is a key part of the story. But how to navigate a path to the truth when everyone seems to be either lying or hiding a woeful secret of their own makes Lydia seem doubly blighted.
The Separation is a captivating story which makes you keep reading to see what happens. Feelings run high, there's a ton of drama and missing links that make for tantalising if not very demanding reading. The Malaya setting is brilliantly recreated here, a testament to the author's research and her own childhood years spent in the colony.