As you probably know, I often read a book at a single sitting. One of the joys, I suppose, of not working full-time. However, I don’t usually sit up until 4:30 in the morning, but one of the two books in this blog caused me to do just that.
One is a first novel by Jennifer McVeigh called The Fever Tree. Set in London and South Africa, Frances Irvine is a young woman of moderate means and expectations, the only daughter of an Irish entrepreneur who has married, and lost, a wife who was socially his superior. Growing up in Kensington, enjoying all that Society has to offer through her Uncle, Sir John Hamilton and her cousins Lucille and Victoria, which allowed her access to its many delights and opportunities, Frances is born to do little more than embroidery, painting and some piano playing. However, unwise speculation in railway shares has caused a disastrous drop in her father’s fortunes and when he suddenly dies she is confronted with the unenviable choice of moving to Manchester with her Irish relations, who are offering her the position of (unpaid) governess or marriage to a young man she barely knows, who is taking up a position as a doctor in South Africa. Opting for the latter, she departs.
South Africa in the nineteenth century was a raw, inhospitable place. Newly settled by the Europeans, first the Dutch and then the English, everything was extremely basic; those without money living in tent cities and survival was for the most practical and the fittest. Misunderstanding everything about her situation, Frances blunders about and risks losing it all, all the time blaming others for what is happening to her. Early in the book, Frances and Edwin Matthews are talking about some roses that her father has grown. He says:
I have never liked domesticated plants. There is something excessive in their prettiness. They seem decorative to a fault…I can’t admire splendour at the cost of sterility. These roses are either grown from cuttings because they can’t propagate themselves, or they are grafted on to the stronger roots of other plants to help them survive. They have to be nurtured by a careful gardener in a perfectly controlled environment. Monstrosities, Darwin has called them. Deviations from their true form in nature.
However, the strength of the material lies in the meticulous historical research about early colonisation of South Africa; into the procurement and mining of diamonds in the Kimberley fields, a dangerous and often fatal labour for the African natives, not only from mining accidents, but also disease; while hugely lucrative for the Europeans who owned the stake. We worry nowadays about Blood Diamonds, but actually looking back only a few hundred years the cost of the sparklers used for adornment has often been paid for in blood, it is merely blood spilled out of sight.
The other book is by Patrick Gale, and quite co-incidentally, also has a mining background since it is set in the Cornish villages of Pendeen and Morvah, which until the mines were closed during the Premiership of Mrs Thatcher, were tin mining villages, Geevor being one of the last tin mines to close. This novel is called A Perfectly Good Man and is a harrowing and beautiful journey through the life of a parish priest, Barnaby Johnson. It has as many twists and turns as a Cornish lane, and the landscape is exquisitely presented as part of the background, its rugged beauty and the clinging nature of the villages on that piece of coast, subtly underlining the tenacious hold that Cornwall has on her inhabitants. This book is about the nature of belief and unbelief, and of believers and unbelievers and what the two do to and do for each other; it points a beam of piercing light on marriage and death, on village life and family life with all their secrets, private griefs and public faces. It is compellingly intelligent writing, deeply emotional and satisfyingly whole, resonantly true.
Worth every minute it takes.