Monday, July 29, 2013

Jennifer McVeigh's The Fever Tree, about a woman's self-awakening in 1880s South Africa

“It’s not an unusual story, really – only the details set it apart,” remarks Dr. Edwin Matthews to our heroine, Frances, describing how he found himself living on the expansive South African plains in 1880. His words could apply equally well to the plot of Jennifer McVeigh’s poignant debut.

Novels that follow a woman’s path to maturity are hardly groundbreaking, but Frances – well, she’s a complicated person who has more growing up to do than most. Lonely and self-absorbed, she makes so many wretched mistakes that it’s difficult to identify with her even while her plight elicits sympathy.

The Fever Tree places this challenging protagonist in a beautifully rendered setting and follows her transformative journey in expressive language that lets readers judge her and her situation for themselves. It’s these many rich specifics that make the novel stand out.

A Londoner brought up with every privilege, Frances Irvine finds herself penniless and alone following her father’s bad investments and sudden, early death. She has only two choices for her future, both equally undesirable.  She can either join her Irish aunt’s household as a nursemaid, or marry Edwin, a distant relation, and establish a new life with him in South Africa, where he works as a physician.

Although Edwin’s aloofness repels her, Frances grudgingly accepts his proposal. However, after meeting charismatic, ambitious William Westbrook on the long voyage to the Cape, she basks in his attentions and plans for her life to take a different course.

Moving between the isolation of a remote cottage on the veldt and the rough-and-tumble diamond mining operation at Kimberley, with its pervasive corruption, greed, and horrific racial inequities, the novel reaches a climax when word spreads about smallpox among the local population – which, if it were true, would have devastating economic impact on the mines and investors.

Frances finds herself caught between Edwin’s noble pursuit of the truth about the epidemic and her continual desire for William. Her growing appreciation for the land around her drives her story on, although she refuses to adapt to her new circumstances and often sees the worst in people who mean her well.  Her skewed outlook on her world becomes more obvious as the plot unfolds. Still, her deep character arc makes the denouement all the more powerful.

Scenes in which the red, dusty Karoo region blossoms into life are gloriously envisioned, and the novel amply fulfills its promise of an enticing romantic adventure in an exotic, faraway land. At the same time, it's an eye-opening account about the brutal consequences of imperialism.  In many ways it’s reminiscent of W. Somerset Maugham’s A Painted Veil, but with a more hopeful and rewarding ending.

The Fever Tree was published by Putnam/Amy Einhorn in April ($25.95, hb, 432pp). In the UK, the publisher is Penguin (£7.99, pb).  Thanks to the publisher for providing me a review copy at my request.


  1. Anonymous3:15 PM

    I was thinking of The Painted Veil as I read your review. On of my fav short stories, and the movie's wonderful. This book sounds like one I'd enjoy.

    1. I loved the movie, too. The cinematography was superb, and the scenery was gorgeous.