We had a debut novel last Sunday, and I have another one for you today: The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh is an excellent piece of work, as elegant as it is compelling.
The book was inspired by a diary which the author found in the British Library, the account of a young doctor's attempts to expose a smallpox epidemic covered up by Cecil Rhodes in the diamond-mining area of South Africa in the 1880s. From this raw material comes a page-turner of a story about a woman who must choose between passion and duty, and about a country whose natural resources are buried deep.
Frances Irvine has led a life of wealth and status in London, but when her father dies suddenly and prematurely, she discovers she is destitute and is forced to accept the marriage proposal of Dr. Edwin Matthews, a cousin she barely knows and does not love. En route to South Africa to join him, Frances meets William Westbrook, cousin to the Cape's richest and most powerful man, and William's easy charm and charisma and ability to enjoy life and to handle every situation prove irresistible to the young woman who has been emotionally and socially cut adrift. As the voyage goes on, the relationship between William and Frances deepens and her engagement to Edwin is threatened, but whereas the contained, watchful doctor is driven by conscience and high principles, the suave William has a ruthless streak and his ambition is centred on personal gain rather than universal good; while Frances is smitten she is not wholly sure of him.
What follows is a story that is broad in scope taking in the beautiful but hostile environment, the social conditions and political capital of the diamond-mining world, the difficulties of life on the veldt and of fitting in and belonging in an alien world. Frances' sense of displacement is acute - her sudden 'expulsion' from her London life of privilege due to her father's debts, her lack of means and consequently of choice as to her future, even her ignorance of the practical matters of daily existence - it is as if her horizon is constantly shifting, and with no clear frame of reference, there is almost no-one she can trust. But in both the wilderness and the rough shanty towns of the diamond mines, Frances grows up quickly and a new maturity dispels her naivety so that eventually she is able to weigh what she has against what she thinks she wants.
As accomplished in its portrayal of the greed and corruption at the heart of its world as of its characters' motives - whether selfless or self-centred - and their complex emotional impulses, the novel is a sweeping, romantic story, vividly and beautifully written.