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REVIEW:  The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

REVIEW: The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

Dear Ms. McVeigh,

I was interested in The Fever Tree, your first work of historical fiction, partly because of this beautifully written excerpt at your site, partly because the Booklist review mentioned that it had a social justice angle (the novel is mainly set in late 19th century South Africa), and partly because of the pretty cover (yes, I’m shallow like that).

TheFeverTreeThis book was hard, at times even painful to read and it left me with mixed feelings. But before I get into that, a plot summary.

The novel begins with eighteen year old Frances Irvine’s discovery that her father is unwell. Frances’ father is a successful furniture maker who rose from humble beginnings to marry above his station.

Frances’ mother, the daughter of a gentleman, died when Frances was a child, and Frances, the only child of their union, now learns from the maid that her father had a collapse – due, it turns out to losing his fortune in a bad investment. Frances fears she may lose him too.

With her father is Edwin Matthews, a doctor as well as a cousin of Frances’ on her father’s side. Like her father, Edwin comes from a community of poor Irish workers in Manchester, and it was her father’s generosity that helped Edwin obtain an education and medical training.

When Frances was a young teen Edwin came to live with them. His manners appalled Frances, and she found the way he watched her, especially when she played piano, disturbing. After they finish discussing her father’s condition, she senses Edwin is attracted to her, but she wants no part of him.

Frances has cousins on her mother’s side, too, and to them she is the unwanted family member. Her uncle only deigned to invite her to visit after his father’s death. Frances’ grandfather never forgave her mother for marrying down, and her uncle is very cautious about how much he is willing to do for her.

Thus, when, a few months later, her father passes away, her uncle tells Frances that he has received an offer for her hand from Edwin Matthews, who is in England just then but lives in South Africa. Frances’ aunt on her father’s side has grudgingly offered to take her in to a small, shabby house in Manchester full of children who need looking after, and those, says her uncle are the  two choices she has.

Frances is dismayed. She already turned down one proposal from Edwin, and now his persistence in asking to marry her has cost her a potential invitation to live with her uncle’s family. She turns down Edwin’s proposal, but later, when all her father’s possessions are sold and it’s almost time to go to Manchester, she changes her mind. Anything would be better than Manchester, even South Africa.

On her way to her future husband, Frances shares a ship’s cabin aboard the Cambrian with Anne and Mariella, two working class girls going to South Africa because it’s hard to find work in England. At first they seem foreign to Frances, but later she befriends them and even stands up for them.

Also on the ship is the handsome William Westbrook. William, Frances learns, is “partly Jewish,” the Whitechapel-born nephew of Joseph Baier, a man who sailed to South Africa to make his fortune and eventually became a diamond magnate and then sent William to Oxford for polish.

William has excellent prospects and he appeals to Frances far more than Edwin. This attraction is reciprocated: William flirts with Frances and once, during a storm at sea, even saves her life. Frances eventually allows him to touch her, and one night when she has drunk quite a bit, sleeps with him.

What will happen when the Cambrian docks in Cape Town? Will Frances choose William over Edwin or Edwin over William? More importantly, will she remain the spoiled, cosseted girl she was in England, or will she discover a hidden strength and integrity she did not know she possessed?

I have to admit upfront that reading The Fever Tree was, for long stretches of the novel, not a pleasant experience.

Although we get to know a couple of the black characters somewhat, the focus is mainly on the white ones, and to me this felt at odds with how much the book focuses on racism and the evils of colonialism.

Discrimination, bigotry and privilege are major themes here, with Frances initially disliking Edwin in part because he reminds her that she too has Irish bloodlines, and William attracting her because despite his half-Jewish status, he hobnobs with the powerful.

Once Frances arrives in South Africa, the exploitation of black South Africans by white colonists is all around her, everywhere, and one of the men in her life tries to stand up to it at personal risk, while another embodies it.

The fact that she was still torn between them at this point was very difficult for me, though of course, this was the point the book made —that often it is easier to conform with a social wrong than to do the right thing, which may come at personal cost.

Further, the N word is used casually by some of the villainous characters. A reader who finds any of the above painful, as I did, may want to avoid the book because of these triggers.

In my own case, I was also disturbed by the portrayal of Joseph Baier, the diamond magnate, when he appears on the stage. I understand that Baier has to be a villain, given his position of extreme power and his exploitation of black South Africans, but I’m not certain he had to be Jewish. Though some powerful investors in the diamond trade were indeed Jewish, Baier’s worst actions are based on those of Cecil Rhodes, the son of a Church of England vicar.

To clarify further, I don’t categorically object to Jewish villains, but I feel that when one is portrayed, it is extra important to avoid stereotypes. Baier’s portrayal skated very close to the edge of Nazi era stereotypes in that he was not only money-grubbing but also predatory and physically unattractive, though the latter was due to a corpulent physique and not to stereotypically Jewish features.

A scene in which Baier uses his knowledge of Frances’ personal life to blackmail her into rubbing his bare feet and breathes heavily while she does so struck me as offensive and I feel his power over her could have been portrayed in a more sensitive way.

I want to be clear, though, that the book also had a social conscience and took a stance against racism over and over. There is a scene in which a spoiled Frances, in one of her worst actions, complains about the laziness of a black maid and one of the men in her life reads her the riot act—I wanted to cheer when that last happened.

The love triangle at the center of the story frustrated me because it took Frances far too long to see the truth about these two men. One was strong minded, passionate about social justice and compassionate to others, while the second was power hungry, womanizing, immature, and by far the most damning of all in my eyes, openly racist.

I wanted to kill the second man, and I couldn’t understand why he had such emotional power over Frances, especially since during their first sexual encounter, her consent was in question. I can handle reading about unfaithfulness, but this man was so horrible that I didn’t feel Frances’ blindness where he was concerned was sufficiently supported in the text.

Two of the novel’s biggest strengths are its well-crafted prose and its scenic description of South Africa. So many images formed in my mind as I read it, and I especially loved the stark beauty of the Karoo, where Frances spends part of the novel.

I also enjoyed Frances’ turnaround, when it finally arrived. It was good to see her redeem herself in my eyes but I wish this had come sooner. I was a bit reminded of Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber when I read this novel because Frances took so long to come to her epiphany about the men, and more importantly, about herself and her own values.

As I said above, big stretches of the novel were difficult to read, and some even painful. Craft wise The Fever Tree was fairly well executed for the type of book it is, but it was also too triggering for me. C-.

Janine

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REVIEW:  Erased by Jennifer Rush

REVIEW: Erased by Jennifer Rush

erased-jennifer-rush

Dear Ms. Rush,

While your debut, Altered, left me underwhelmed, the fast-paced action of the plot stuck with me. I wanted to see if the second book improved. Sometimes it takes a book or two for a series to find its legs. (Hey, I started out a fantasy reader. Believe me, I know about series that take a while to get going!) So I picked up Erased with those hopes in mind. Maybe they were misplaced.

After the events of Altered, Anna and the boys — Sam, Nick and Cas — remain on the run from the Branch, the organization that made the boys into super soldiers and Anna into their control switch. But the time away from the Branch has had other results. Without the drugs constantly pumped into their system, old memories are resurfacing — memories that were once suppressed.

Anna struggles to make sense of her memories, trying to put together the pieces in a way that makes sense. Then she discovers that her beloved sister, Dani, may still be alive. Every sign points to a trap set by the Branch, but the truth may be even more surprising.

Much like Altered, Erased is action-packed and zips along at a fast pace. Because of this, it’s a quick read but once the last page is turned, the flaws come tumbling out one after another. This is a novel with lots of flash but not much substance.

First of all, Erased deals with lots of heavy topics: identity, suppressed memories (whether by natural means or no), estranged family members, and abuse. But not enough time is given to these subjects and I can’t help but think that’s to the novel’s detriment. Maybe it’s the length of the novel. I don’t know if you can balance these themes and the plot and do them both justice in less than 300 pages.

Secondly, I’m forced to admit that Anna is a very reactive character. I don’t know if this is a holdover from the Hunger Games school of “strong” female protagonists but from page 1, Anna is reacting. Every decision she makes is in reaction to an event that happens. For a protagonist, she doesn’t really control her own fate, even in a small way. You don’t notice this immediately while reading the novel — or at least I didn’t — but having finished the book, I’m left feeling distinctly unsatisfied.

Some of the problems from Altered carried over. I’m still not entirely comfortable with the fact that Anna and Sam are in a relationship, when Sam was once in love with her older sister, Dani. Yes, the same older sister who returns in this book. While I’m relieved there are no awkward love triangles in Erased, I still think that aspect should have had more impact on the present-day relationships. Sure, everyone’s memories have been tampered with in some way but still, wouldn’t you feel awkward when you were reunited with the sister you lost… who also used to date your current boyfriend? I’m sorry. Anna is a teenager. There’s no way a simple conversation can put all those worries to rest.

I’m also disappointed by the relationship between the sisters. Yes, they’ve been estranged and yes, Anna’s memories have been altered and gaps are missing but this is a sister practically come back from the dead. Shouldn’t there be more impact? It just seemed underdeveloped and lots of missed opportunities abounded. In many ways, I wondered if Dani even needed to be Anna’s big sister. She could have been a best friend based on the ways that part of their relationship affected the plot and its implications.

Finally, the romance between Anna and Sam bored me. I know it’s hard to keep an established relationship interesting. That’s why so many awkward love triangles get introduced after the couple has gotten together. This isn’t me saying I want that. The opposite, actually! But Anna and Sam are on the run. Anna is learning survival skills and Sam is the perfect soldier-assassin. Shouldn’t there have been some friction in their relationship under this conditions? That’s a lot of stress!

Ironically, I found myself wanting Anna to get together with another character (Nick). Their dynamic is more interesting and after some revelations in Erased, I’d almost say them getting together makes more sense. Or maybe that’s just my favorite tropes affecting my judgment. (I’ll refrain from saying more because that’d be a spoiler.)

While I’d hoped for some interesting developments in the second book of this series, I realize now those expectations were misplaced. If you enjoyed Altered, I suspect you’ll like this book. But if you were left dissatisfied by the previous book, I wouldn’t bother picking this up. It’s more of the same. C-

My regards,
Jia

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