The Fever Tree: A Novel. Jennifer McVeigh. Berkley Trade/Penguin Group (USA). February 2014. 448 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780425264911.
The fever tree is the dry acacia tree, is totally dependent on abundant water in “the Karoo” fields of Kimberley, Africa. Thorns on its limbs are prolific which is why other animals can’t attack the birds who nest on its branches in layers. Were that were true for Francine Irvine, who led a privileged life in England and lost it all when her father died and she discovered he was bankrupt from reckless investments in the railroad. Two choices were her only options – move to Manchester to serve as nursemaid to her cruel Aunt’s numerous children or marry Edwin, the man her father had originally supported as a charity case. She obviously chose the latter although she had no illusions about being the wife of a man she really didn’t know.
This is the story of a woman who serves as a classic tragic figure. Her fall from grace involves being seduced by William, a man who works for the most powerful man in Africa. Francine waits after arrival in Africa and only after one cruel communication travels on to wed Edwin. Upon arrival she is both surprised and unprepared for his cold reception, including weekly “romance.”
However, this story is not only a revelation about Francine’s journey to maturity but also a powerful indictment of the treatment of workers and natives in Kimberley, all associated with the insatiably greed of the mine owner Baier. The cruelties of which Francine hears and sees, as well as the work Edwin accomplishes to attempt to alleviate and eradicate the causes of native suffering are riveting and horrific accounts. Like Francine, the reader cannot help keep reading, hoping against hope that something dramatic will occur to change the day-to-day ghastly conditions.
Francine is a quixotic character in a sense, doing absolutely nothing to help herself and still expecting to be served and helped by Edwin and anybody else who comes along. The change that comes to her naive perspective is dramatic and credible because it is all so real. Whether or not she and Edwin can survive as a loving married couple remains to be seen and is well worth the pages turned rapidly during the wait. Can she learn to love Africa as Edwin loves this amazing land?
Thorns are protective devices one must negotiate to earn the shelter and beauty of this beautiful, harsh, cruel and magnificent land of Africa. Based on a personal experience described after the story, Jennifer McVeigh has crafted a magnificent story that needs to be told and read by those who normally might never know about this “colonial disaster.” Francine grows up in a highly charged business and political travesty, and Jennifer McVeigh deserves acclimation for the job she has done weaving it into a dramatic adventure of historical fiction! Highly recommended!