We are all possessors of secrets. They may vary in nature and value, but we keep them all the same. A secret shared between two people, despite their best intentions, rarely stays so. Secret liaisons, secret murders, secret selves – they’re all revealed eventually – in literature and in life. I’m not hiding any of those examples, currently, not that I’d share them if I was. The most I’m willing to admit: on occasion I’ve been known to cry to alter an intended outcome. What do I have to show for it? A spotless transportation record. It’s worth every glistening tear. I’m duly ashamed. However Frances Irvine, the protagonist of Jennifer McVeigh’s debut novel The Fever Tree, is the possessor of one of the secrets listed above and is the more relatable for it.
Frances, orphaned and penniless after her father’s death, is faced with two choices. She can remain in England and become a servant in her aunt’s house or she can marry stoic Dr. Edwin Matthews, a man she barely knows, and emigrate to South Africa. She chooses marriage.
Frances takes a steamer down to the cape. In transit she meets the scandalous, handsome William Westbrook. She falls in love with him and gives in to her desire; only to find out he’s engaged to another woman. She’s humiliated, but she cannot forget him – even when she marries Edwin. They begin their life together on an isolated plain, where Edwin has been banished for trying to help the native South Africans. The unexpected living situation, coupled with her unhappiness, lead her to despise Edwin and the poverty they live in. Furthering the difficulties are Edwin’s political and medical beliefs, which run in direct opposition to diamond mine owners – making him hated by the powerful and beloved by the downtrodden.
Oblivious to the consequences, Frances makes terrible decisions to the detriment of those around her, ultimately revealing the secrets she has been keeping. She’s young, selfish, and spoiled, and she must grow up before she stands any hope of recovering what she’s lost.
The Fever Tree tells the story of London born Frances’s emigration to South Africa. The novel explores the topics of love, redemption, African colonialism, and Victorian society. While epic in both geographic and emotional scope, it also does a lovely job of illuminating how easy it is to see everything we lack and how hard it is to see what’s already in front of us. It’s earned comparisons to both Gone With the Wind and Out of Africa, but I feel, if looking for similar literature, that The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham is the most apt comparison.
While it doesn’t break new ground in historical fiction (there are predictable moments), it is an enjoyable, well researched edition to the genre. It explores the ruthlessness of the diamond trade and lengths some would go to protect their profit. The storytelling is very fine, the prose is elegant, and the novel’s engrossing. The Fever Tree* by Jennifer McVeigh is an excellent debut novel. 4/5.
*I was provided a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
As Edwin and Frances are very poor, even bread and cheese is seen as a culinary reward. My recommendation: Herbed cheese spread.