Haasse's 'The Tea Lords' is about colonial life in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia), as experienced by the Kerkhoven family between 1869 and 1918. Principally, the book follows the expatriate life of Rudolf Kerkhoven, the eldest son, from the time he prepares to leave Holland to join his family in the cultivation of tea, through to the end of his working life.
This is very much a portrait of colonial life and more interestingly perhaps, of the colonial mindset. In Holland prior to his departure, Rudolf sees himself as a man of "broad horizons" ready to go out and explore the world. On arrival in the tea plantations, he falls very genuinely in love with the land and the landscapes, yet slowly the years of arduous work to make a success of his life gradually mean that his world shrinks to little more than the jobs in hand on the farm. The book is rich in the beauty of Indonesia and is peppered with native Soedanese and Malay words, but there is little by way of indigenous activity. The Kerhovens and their friends see themselves as distinct from the Dutch they left behind in Holland, they are steadfast in their belief that they are of the East Indies and belong there.
It's worth pointing out that this is not strictly a novel. The book is instead based on private correspondence and documents from The Indies Tea and Family Archive and also from clearly substantial records from various family collections. As Haasse writes at the end, the material in the book is "not invented but chosen and arranged to meet the demands of the novel". So 'The Tea Lords' is neither quite fact nor fiction but it maintains a beautifully compelling middle road. The European characters are all very believeable and lovingly drawn, with a very real attempt by Haasse to understand and convey the emotions, pressures and principles behind her source material. She brings the Kerkhovens to life and in so doing, recreates a bygone age with all its hopes, aspirations, pressures, obligations, manners and morals. It's a beautifully written book and a really fascinating and engaging read. I would recommend it simply in its own right, but you will particularly like this if you like tea, if you think you know all about colonialism and if you enjoy tales about 19th Century families.
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