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I've always had a soft spot for stories that take place in Africa. I guess many of us have a fascination with the continent that is known for its exotic animals and often-harsh environment. Perhaps it's some primordial instinct that makes us want to learn about the place of our origins. In any case, The South African setting of Jennifer McVeigh's The Fever Tree called to me.
Here's the publisher's summary:
Having drawn comparisons to Gone with the Wind and Out of Africa, The Fever Tree is a page-turner of the very first order.If I'm going to be perfectly honest, then I have to admit that by a third of the way through The Fever Tree, I was beginning to wonder if McVeigh had written a historical romance, minus the detailed sex scenes. But soon thereafter I realized that, although some aspects of the plot follow a familiar pattern, the novel is decidedly not what it first appears.
In London she was caged by society.
In South Africa, she is dangerously free.
Frances Irvine, left destitute in the wake of her father’s sudden death, has been forced to abandon her life of wealth and privilege in London and emigrate to the Southern Cape of Africa. 1880 South Africa is a country torn apart by greed. In this remote and inhospitable land she becomes entangled with two very different men—one driven by ambition, the other by his ideals. Only when the rumor of a smallpox epidemic takes her into the dark heart of the diamond mines does she see her path to happiness. But this is a ruthless world of avarice and exploitation, where the spoils of the rich come at a terrible human cost and powerful men will go to any lengths to keep the mines in operation. Removed from civilization and disillusioned by her isolation, Frances must choose between passion and integrity, a decision that has devastating consequences. The Fever Tree is a compelling portrait of colonial South Africa, its raw beauty and deprivation alive in equal measure. But above all it is a love story about how—just when we need it most—fear can blind us to the truth.
The Fever Tree is instead the tale of Frances's maturation and transformation from a Victorian London society girl to a South African homesteader. And, yes, there is a love story too.
Three aspects of the novel stand out for me. First is the character of Frances, whose personality was carefully and skillfully developed. It would have been so easy for McVeigh to have made Frances a spoiled rich girl or a somewhat dim-witted socialite. But Frances's behavior and choices are rendered compelling because she's a product of her times and upbringing. She isn't spoiled, just properly sheltered. She isn't stupid, just naive and lacking womanly guidance.
So while we may cringe at what she does or doesn't do, we understand that Frances is a victim of her circumstances. Alone in Africa with no personal resources, utterly unprepared to run a household, and lacking all domestic skills, it's no wonder she dreams of a prince who will save her from all her misery.
I also loved McVeigh's descriptions of life in colonial Africa, especially the wilderness. For example:
She discovered that if you look closely at the veldt it transformed itself into a living, breathing thing. The black, lichen-covered rock gleamed green and flickered out a tongue. Two small bushes, indistinguishable from the surrounding scrub, quivered then blew across the plain—ostrich chicks. A clump of brown and yellow soil stirred, thrust out a leathered neck, and ambled, undeniably tortoise-like towards the dam. And the silence resolved itself into the checkered sound of insects, the beating of wings, the wind feeling its way through the grasses. (p. 208; uncorrected proofs)More than just pretty descriptions of nature, The Fever Tree reveals the harsh life of European settlers and doesn't shy away from how whites treated the darker-skinned people who were native to the land.
Finally, The Fever Tree was inspired by true events recorded in a doctor's diary McVeigh found in the British Library. The doctor described the diseases, especially smallpox, and horrible working conditions he witnessed at the diamond mines. Frances's husband, a young physician with no social connections, tries his best to do the moral and ethical thing, caring for all who need medical attention and attempting to prevent outbreaks of smallpox. Unfortunately, in the book and in the historical record, the diamond kings decided to ignore the signs of an epidemic. After all, they didn't want to scare off their manual laborers and lose their income. The results of their inattention were disastrous.
Other issues addressed in The Fever Tree are diamond smuggling, conservation, women's issues, marriage, and South African politics. These and other aspects of the story I didn't discuss here make the novel a great book club choice.
Do not be fooled by the love story or by the somewhat predictable plot. The Fever Tree, Jennifer McVeigh's debut novel, is a tightly written story of a young woman's awakening from the confinements of Victorian society to discover the beauty of a wild continent and the independence won by hard work.
Amy Einhorn Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Amy Einhorn's open letter posted here on January 25, 2010, or click the Amy Einhorn tab below my banner photo. To join the Amy Einhorn Books Reading Challenge, click the link.
Buy The Fever Tree at an Indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Putnam / Amy Einhorn Books, April 2013
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