South Africa’s corrupt and disease-riddled diamond industry in the 1880s serves as a gritty setting for newcomer McVeigh’s historical novel about a young English woman’s journey toward self-enlightenment.
When Frances Irvine’s father dies and leaves her penniless, she reluctantly accepts a distant cousin’s marriage proposal. She considers Dr. Edwin Matthews a cold and unemotional man who’s socially beneath her, but Frances hopes Edwin’s practice in South Africa will one day provide her with the lifestyle to which she’s accustomed. Besides, no one else has volunteered to take her in, except for an aunt who expects Frances to work as a nanny in exchange for lodging. Sharing a small second-class cabin with two other girls, 19-year-old Frances sets sail for her new home, but during the voyage, she falls in love with William Westbrook. She’s convinced he loves her, too, but Frances eventually resigns herself to marrying Edwin when William fails to follow through on their plans to be together after the voyage. When she arrives at her new home, she’s dismayed to discover Edwin lives in a remote area in a hovel. There are few comforts—save for a piano Edwin bought her as a wedding present—and Frances unhappily refuses to adapt to her new life. In fact, Frances views her husband with scorn and doesn’t understand his preoccupation with a smallpox outbreak, which he claims is of epidemic proportion, or his defense of the rights of South African natives who work in the mines; she remains more concerned about the discomfort she faces each day due to her husband’s lack of financial ambition. After they move to Kensington, though, Frances slowly realizes there’s more to her husband than she first assumed, and she discovers that many people respect him, not only for his work as a medical doctor, but as a human rights advocate. Still, she believes that William, not Edwin, represents her path to happiness. Forceful and direct, yet surprisingly lyrical, McVeigh’s narrative weaves top-notch research and true passion for the material with a well-conceived plot.
Readers might argue that the ending’s a bit weak when compared to the boldness of the rest of the story, but that’s a minor issue. Overall, this story’s a gem.