The Fever Tree
1878. Orphaned by the death of her father, Frances Irvine faces a stark choice. Spurned by her mother’s grand relatives and left penniless by her father’s unwise investments, she must either become an unpaid nursemaid to an impoverished aunt, or marry a man she barely knows.
Dr Edwin Matthews is a distant relative (in every sense of the word) whose work takes him to the diamond-mining town of Kimberley in South Africa. But as Frances makes her reluctant way to join him, she encounters the charismatic William Westbrook. He is the only person who seems to sympathise with her plight, but he has his own fortune to make and a hidden agenda…
Inspired by the diary of a doctor combating the smallpox epidemic in South Africa, McVeigh’s debut novel creates a vivid portrait of the ugly side of the British Empire, as well as the stark beauty of the Karoo.
Frances in particular is a complex character as she evolves from sheltered child to mature woman. Given her vulnerability after her father’s death and the apparent coldness of Edwin, it’s not surprising that William leaves such a profound effect on her, at the same time that some deeper instinct warns her to be wary of him.
If I do have a reservation, it is that Edwin is often depicted as too cold and single-minded – the sort of person it is easy to admire from a distance but impossible to live with because he fails to make allowances for lesser mortals. Occasionally the vocabulary struck me as too modern – when, for instance, did the expression ‘squeaky-clean’ become current? And I’m not surprised that a minor character went bankrupt if he really sheared sheep during a snowstorm – presumably the entire flock died of hypothermia. But this is nit-picking. A promising debut.