The Fever Tree
While researching the history of English colonials in South Africa in the reading room of the British Library, author Jennifer McVeigh stumbled across an old canvas-bound diary written by a doctor at the end of the 19th century. The diary told the fascinating story of a smallpox epidemic that had ravaged the diamond-mining town of Kimberley in South Africa. The disease raged on for over two years, killing thousands, mostly African laborers who worked in the diamond mines. As McVeigh read on, she was appalled to discover that the disease would not have been as widespread as it eventually became had its existence not been covered up by the English statesman Cecil Rhodes, who was protecting his investments in the diamond mines.
From this episode in English history, McVeigh has fashioned a captivating and thoroughly researched historical novel.
"McVeigh has fashioned a captivating and thoroughly researched historical novel.... THE FEVER TREE is also a riveting love story and a well-told tale of one woman’s journey towards self-discovery."
The year is 1877, and Frances Irvine is living a life of wealth and privilege in London with her father. Her mother, a woman of means and family connections, whose family cut her off once she married Frances’s father, with his “Irish blood and poor connections,” has long since passed away. When her father dies suddenly, Frances is left alone and destitute. Hoping that her wealthy uncle will take her in, she is devastated to learn he will not. Frances must decide whether to live with her father’s sister in Manchester, and become nurse to her children, or accept the marriage proposal of Edwin Matthews, a distant cousin working as a doctor in Kimberley, South Africa. Horrified by both options, Frances eventually accepts Edwin’s marriage proposal, convinced that he is only marrying her for her connections.
While traveling on the steamship to the Cape, Frances meets and falls in love with the dashing William Westbrook. Incredibly charismatic and handsome, William is a diamond trader whose cousin, Joseph Baier, owns all the diamond mines in Kimberley and is one of the most powerful men in South Africa. By the time they reach the Cape, Frances has made plans to run off with William, only to learn upon waiting for him at a boarding house that Baier has refused to consider the idea of their marriage.
In the meantime, Edwin --- who has been outspoken about the exploitation of black laborers working the mines and is urging people to get vaccinated against the rapidly spreading smallpox disease --- has been chased out of Kimberley under pressure from Baier. After traveling through a dust storm, Frances finally meets up with him at Rietfontein, a farm many miles away. In the middle of nowhere, and with very little income, Edwin tries his best to make Frances happy, but she is not equipped for life on the farm.
As she slowly begins to feel a connection to Riefontein and Edwin, he announces that they will be moving to the Cape but must first make a stop at Kimberley. There she sees William Westbrook again, and makes the same naïve mistake she made earlier in the novel of trusting him and their relationship together. While Edwin is busy being the only doctor courageous enough to stand up to Joseph Baier, Frances runs off with William to Johannesburg. On their journey there, she sees firsthand the kind of man he really is and desperately tries to make her way back to Edwin, who refuses her.
Jennifer McVeigh vividly describes the hidden beauty of South Africa’s barren landscape and the very human consequences of power and greed. THE FEVER TREE is also a riveting love story and a well-told tale of one woman’s journey towards self-discovery.
Reviewed by Jennifer Romanello on April 5, 2013