This book is so damn good; I don’t even know where to start. A historical novel set in South Africa in the late 1800s (during the Mineral Revolution, when droves of aspiring Brits were heading to Kimberley to plunder the diamond mines) this isn’t the kind of tale I’d normally pick off the shelf in a bookshop…. But my goodness, I’m so glad I read it. I was fortunate enough to hear the author, Jennifer McVeigh, read an extract at the last Penguin Bloggers Night, which definitely piqued my interest… but from the moment I picked up the book, I was hooked. I raced through it, even reading whilst meandering blindly down Carnaby Street on my way to work each morning, as I couldn’t bear to put it down. Then, after devouring the book in a matter of days and becoming marginally hysterical over its magnificent ending, I found myself wishing that I’d savoured it… and had to stop myself reading the story all over again.
I rather fear that in my overenthusiasm, I’ll end up spoiling the plot, but just to give you a little taster… the protagonist is Frances Irvine, a young girl with a tentative foothold in London Society. With a self-made Irish father and an upper class English mother who was cast out by her family when she chose to marry a ‘shop boy’, Frances’ position within the rigid Victorian class system is complicated. To make things even worse, she loses her mother in childhood, and later, her father too dies suddenly, leaving her destitute. When her mother’s family refuse to take her in, her only option is to emigrate to South Africa as the wife of a doctor, whom she does not love. On her passage to the Cape, she falls for an eligible stranger, which leaves her torn between following her heart and preserving her integrity.
On the surface, it’s a love story… but this book is so much more than that. The author has clearly put a tremendous amount of time and effort into researching what life was like for people who braved the crossing to South Africa, who tried to set up home in an inhospitable land, and who risked everything for the promise of wealth. She exposes the cruel beauty of the Karoo, the shameless greed of those in positions of power, the exploitation of the native people, and the terrible human price that was paid while a corrupt industry boomed. And Frances, who has to suffer hardships that would previously have been unimaginable to her – and certainly were to me as I read her story curled up in my bed, or from the comfort of my sofa, or on the tube to work – is forced to witness hideous cruelty, and endure a position of complete powerlessness while she struggles to take some control of her future.
It’s a really humbling read, and I was moved to tears many a time throughout. It made me think hard about how much I have, and how easy life has become for most of us… and we don’t even realise it. Next time, when I bemoan my lack of funds, the size of my flat, or the cost of living, I will try to think of this book and remind myself how lucky I am to be a 21st Century woman, with my own income, my own space, and the freedom to make my own choices. Go buy it – you will not be disappointed.