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The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

You know how sometimes you’re just in the mood for a sprawling romance, a continent-crossing historical epic, that sort of book.  That was me last week, and The Fever Tree is such a book.

The novel opens in 1880. Frances Irvine is left destitute upon the sudden death of her father. He had been a self-made man, and he and Frances lived in comfort in London; however one last bad investment lost his fortune.  Frances is left with a choice: either to go as a nurse/governess to her cousins in Manchester, or to emigrate to the Cape to marry Edwin Matthews, a young doctor that had lodged with them some time ago. Frances doesn’t really know Edwin, but what choice does she have?

The next chapters tell of her journey to Africa as a second class passenger, travelling with a group of young women emigrating to become  nurses. It is on board ship that she meets William Westbrook – charming and so handsome… He notices her too, and soon she is itching to be released from her vows – enough said!

William is a rogue though, and arriving in the Cape, she discovers that he’s not what she’d hoped for.  She also finds that Edwin has not set up a practice there, but instead is working for William’s boss at a station in the Karoo – some way even from mining town Kimberley. She marries Edwin, but being a doctor’s wife up-country is not what she expected either.  Edwin meanwhile, is concerned about cases of smallpox, and the mine owners will do anything to discredit him.

Their relationship faltering, Frances goes to Kimberley – where she will experience the grabbing world of the diamond mines and see for herself the exploitation of the native workers … and see William again. Rashly, she makes some further poor decisions which will have disastrous consequences.

This was a novel of great contrasts.  Between the first and second class passengers on the ship; the hard-working settler farmers and the nouveaux riches in the African cities; and particularly the greedy mine owners and their casual mistreatment of the native Africans they employed in horrific conditions. The contrasts in the landscape too, the anything goes pioneer town feel of Kimberley, compared with the “austere beauty of the Karoo” which inspired the author to write the novel.

It was hard to dislike Frances, however silly she was.  She threw her heart into most things except, initially, Edwin. When things went wrong, I was rooting for her all the way.  Edwin, as a doctor and scientist, is married on two fronts – he’s precise, restrained and strongly principled, and finds it hard to let go, but he’s a good man, (unlike William).  I admired Edwin, and grew to really like him too for his inner strength.

Impeccably well-researched, this novel was full of detail and made the differences between the lives of the haves and have-nots very clear, as it did too the effects of smallpox, the epidemic and its attempted cover-up, (a true event, I gather).  This attention was never at the expense of the central romance which swept me away and kept me reading, captivated, to the end.

As I read The Fever Tree, I was reminded of another epic romance that I read back in January – Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (review here). O&L too featured a voyage with passengers in first and second classes, episodes in the outback, and a central faltering relationship.  Although I loved O&L, its slow-burn and sheer bulk did require concentration and time to read and appreciate. The Fever Tree encompassed a similar scope in a simpler style that is crying out to be made into a film or TV series, and less pages.  A brilliant debut novel – I loved it too. (9/10).

For another take – read Fleur Fisher’s review here.

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Fever Treeby Jennifer McVeigh. Pub 29 March 2012 by Penguin Viking, Trade Paperback, 343 pages.
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey.

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