Bottom Line: Sweeping portrayal of a woman forced to grow up quickly in the diamond mines of South Africa.
“Frances Irvine, left destitute in the wake of her father’s sudden death, has been forced to abandon her life of wealth and privilege in London and emigrate to the Southern Cape of Africa. 1880 South Africa is a country torn apart by greed. In this remote and inhospitable land she becomes entangled with two very different men—one driven by ambition, the other by his ideals. Only when the rumor of a smallpox epidemic takes her into the dark heart of the diamond mines does she see her path to happiness.But this is a ruthless world of avarice and exploitation, where the spoils of the rich come at a terrible human cost and powerful men will go to any lengths to keep the mines in operation. Removed from civilization and disillusioned by her isolation, Frances must choose between passion and integrity, a decision that has devastating consequences.”
Thoughts: In 1880s London society, a young, wealthy girl’s options were few. When Frances Irvine suddenly finds herself a poor orphan, her limited options become even fewer. Enter Dr. Edwin Matthews, the gentlemen doctor and distant cousin who offers her his hand in marriage and a life in the south African colonies. With little choice, Frances accepts his proposal and finds herself immersed in a world for which she is both mentally and physically unprepared. Jennifer McVeigh’s The Fever Tree follows Frances from London to Africa and from the veldt to the diamond mines. Along the way, she discovers passion, depravity, greed, a shocking disregard for human life, and an extremely circuitous and lengthy journey to happiness.
Much like Scarlett, Frances is an extremely polarizing character. She is meant to be a highly flawed character as the story follows her personal growth alongside the tragedy unfolding around her. She is predictable and spoiled; she makes some truly awful decisions, and her self-centeredness is at times appalling. Some readers might not be able to overlook her continued poor decision-making and her constant need to play the victim of her circumstances, while others will be able to look past that and focus on the character she becomes. Still others will find her shift in demeanor and attitude rather abrupt and more of a convenient, and predictable, plot device than a realistic change. However, one’s enjoyment of the novel does not hinge on the likeability of the main character. The Fever Tree is a sum of its parts, of which Frances is just one portion.
Any discussion about The Fever Tree would be incomplete without discussing the similarities between it and Gone With The Wind; even the publishers mention the likeness. This is not to say that the two stories are exactly the same, but the parallels exist. Frances is a spoiled, naïve girl compelled by outside forces to grow up, and the route she takes to do so is extremely unconventional. There are two men in her life – one the placid intellectual, the other the dashing roué. Frances’ choice is ultimately the wrong one, and she must suffer the consequences. The scope of The Fever Tree is also similar in that both take place in areas and during times of extreme turmoil and danger. Just like Scarlett eventually adjusts to the new world brought by the Civil War, Frances must adjust to the dangers and lack of conventions found in southern Africa.
While readers might feel that nagging sense of familiarity throughout the novel, The Fever Tree does a remarkable job of standing upon its own laurels. Its presentation of the African diamond mines in the 1880s as well as their supporting towns is breathtaking in its brutal clarity, while the scenes that occur in the veldt are stunning in their starkness. Both locations were harsh, unforgiving, and downright dangerous to those unable or unwilling to adapt. Ms. McVeigh also takes a no-holds-barred approach to the political machinations and the ruling entrepreneurs running the mines. The cold-blooded greed, fueled by racism, is horrifying and yet not surprising given how little has really changed in the subsequent decades. While racism and poor working conditions are no surprise to any student of history, what is shocking is the heart of The Fever Tree – the smallpox epidemic hidden by the mines’ owners in order to protect their economic interest. This portion of the novel is absolutely fascinating with its exploration of the scope of the conspiracy and the fact that it completely negates ordinary reactions in times of medical crisis.
In spite of its flaws – its predictability, its clichéd and fairly unlikeable characters – readers will still marvel at the ambition and scope behind The Fever Tree. It is not just a personal growth story about a young girl of privilege. It is really a story about the diamond mines and the immense personal tragedy surrounding them. All of the characters’ actions revolve around the mines in some fashion, and Frances’ fate is directly tied to them. The little-known true story about the epidemic cover-up makes for a tragic and highly compelling backdrop against which Frances searches for her path in life.