Published: 4 April 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Frances Irvine, left destitute by her father's sudden death, is forced to travel from the security and familiarity of her privileged English life to marry Edwin Matthews, an ambitious but penniless young doctor in South Africa.
They are posted to a smallpox station on the vast, inhospitable plains of the Karoo but she is so caught up in her own sense of entitlement and loss of status that she cannot recognise its hidden beauty nor the honour and integrity of the man she has married. All her hopes for happiness seem destroyed when her husband exposes the epidemic that is devastating the native community in the diamond-mining town of Kimberley.
The Fever Tree is a rather mixed affair and left me unsure how to rate it. McVeigh is a good writer and I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of South Africa which were vividly brought to life, however it was told from the point of view of Frances who failed to appreciate any of it. To McVeigh’s credit, it is easy for the reader to see beyond Frances’ prejudices but it would have been nice if the narrative had been shared with the other characters, especially Edwin. The social implications of the mines on the natives are only hinted at for the most part because Frances has no real interest in it so I definitely would have enjoyed learning more from Edwin.
Unfortunately, I disliked Frances immensely as she spends most of the novel whining about the harshness of her new life while making absolutely no effort to improve it. I suppose Frances is on a journey of self-discovery but her realisations comes far too late and she really doesn’t earn her second chance. In a way, certain elements of this story reminded me a lot of Gone With The Wind, and while Scarlett O’Hara may have been selfish at times, she was always likeable and her strong spirit endeared her to the reader. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Frances who is never anything but weak. Like Scarlett, Frances is in love with another man for most of the novel, a man not her husband and ultimately unworthy of her love, but she is an appalling judge of character.
The last few chapters where Frances is trying to redeem herself are rather rushed as is her reconciliation with Edwin of which we only catch a glimpse. I would have liked her to have had to win Edwin back instead of him just capitulating and then it would’ve felt like Frances had really learned her lesson.
While there were parts of the book I didn’t enjoy, I did like McVeigh’s writing style so I wouldn’t be adverse to reading her future books.