It is 1955. Lydia returns to her home in Malacca after visiting a sick friend, expecting to be welcomed by her husband Alec and daughters, Emma and Fleur, only to discover they are missing, along with their clothes. There is not even a note. A local official tells Lydia that Alec has been relocated upcountry. She is compelled to follow, even knowing her journey will be through dangerous jungle territory. Saddled with Maz, a small homeless boy, she is helped by the attractive mystery man, Adil, but is discomforted when she is forced to stay on a rubber plantation with her former lover, Jack.
Meanwhile in England, young Emma’s rocky relationship with her father results in her being sent to a strict boarding school. She doesn’t understand why her mother never had the chance to say goodbye and has been told that she is missing, presumed dead. When her father plans to remarry, Emma sets about trying to solve the puzzle of her mother’s life.
The sights and sounds of steamy tropical Malaya are evocatively described, as is colonial life in the 1950s, but there are a few anachronisms (the protocol used in a serious event, for instance, and incorrect details on a period film). The plot also gets overloaded with contrivances, including love triangles and secret babies. The insurrection in Malaya known as “The Emergency” is only backdrop to the novel, and there are episodes that are vague, implausible or left unresolved. Lydia’s resigned acceptance of what she is told by certain individuals can make her seem too compliant at times, and it is her spirited teenaged daughter Emma who is the more convincing character. Such quibbles aside, this is still a heartfelt and absorbing story about tragedy and loss, love and forgiveness, and it will appeal to a wide audience.