The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

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The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Everything Frances Irvine knows and has come to depend on ends abruptly when her father dies, throwing her into comparative poverty. Her only chance is to leave Victorian England and migrate to South Africa and a loveless marriage to Dr Edwin Matthews, as he fights the spread of smallpox amongst the diamond diggers. In this compulsive, panoramic novel Frances learns that exciting isn't necessarily good and good isn't necessarily unexciting.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670920891

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Shortlisted for Romantic Novelist Association Epic Romantic Novel 2014

Frances Irvine enjoys a privileged lifestyle in Victorian England: a beautiful house, servants, rich gowns and all the trappings her position as the daughter of an industrialist demands. However, Frances' lifestyle proves to be a precarious house of cards balanced on her father's investment in the Northern Pacific Railroad in North America. When the Canadian terrain proves too much for the railroad construction to continue, her father's shares are rendered worthless. As this occurs just before his sudden death, Frances is forced to make a choice as her finery and home are auctioned off. Does she throw herself on the mercy of her lower class relatives or commit herself to a loveless marriage to distant cousin Dr Edwin Matthews?

Frances decides on marriage, even though it will mean leaving England to join Edward fighting smallpox amongst the diamond mines in South Africa. However, Frances' choices don't end there. Whilst en route to Edward she makes another decision, the dangerous and sinister aftermath of which will follow her to her destination, and beyond.

I'll just say this so I'm not neglecting my duty as a reviewer... The plot of The Fever Tree is very predictable. However, now I've mentioned it, forget that I ever did because it really, really doesn't matter. I was unable to put this book down to such an extent that it became a constant accessory until the last page. The reason is simple: this is a novel rich in time, place and texture.

The time is the late 1800s when being a woman was in many ways a disability. Jennifer McVeigh communicates the heroine's chattel status clearly and devastatingly as the rather spoilt Frances (a cross between Scarlet O'Hara and Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett) is unable to survive on her own. Her father was self-made, new money and Irish therefore disdained by her late mother's family due to his place of birth. Frances' only chance to remain in England, therefore, is to become a nursemaid to her working class cousins in less than salubrious surroundings. Against the context of this well-known facet of Victorian life, the author introduces us to lesser known nuggets, like the female emigration scheme. I'd realised that 'excess', less privileged women were sent to the colonies after World War I but I hadn't realised this had its roots in a Victorian charity beloved of the upper classes to ensure that those of straitened circumstances were found worthy (i.e. menial) work abroad.

The place (or rather places) is self-explanatory. The author writes about both English and African culture with equal ease and interest. There are fascinating snippets of information about the tough life on the diamond fields and the harrowing ways in which all labour, but especially the native 'kafirs' were treated and looked upon. History has taught us that it was bad, but in this novel the generalisations of the dry history books become personalised, with human faces, feelings and reactions, bringing the brutality into focus.

The gulf between England and Africa at that time is also brought alive via Frances' eyes and sensibilities. Even the little things, like the Boer women not wearing corsets fills her with disgust and deepens her urge for home. Jennifer McVeigh has been clever here too as she isn't averse to a bit of symbolism: the Boer women are un-corseted in their clothing but also in their attitudes and comments, unhindered by drawing room customs and propriety.

As for texture, you can almost touch the arid veldt and smell the squalor of the diggers' camps. The rugged beauty is there too, embodied in more symbolism - the fever tree of the title. I'll leave that for you to discover as you journey.

This is indeed a first novel of which to be proud and, personally, I can't wait for the second.

I would like to thank the people at Penguin/Viking for providing The Bookbag with a copy for review. We also have a review of Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to read more about women fighting against the odds, (albeit in a different continent) try The Rose Of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon.

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Buy The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh at

Booklists.jpg The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh is in the Richard and Judy Book Club Spring 2013.


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