Review by Helen Taylor
Set in late nineteenth century colonial South Africa, Jennifer McVeigh’s novel follows Frances Irvine through a series of difficult events after the death of her father. Whilst the term ‘coming of age’ might be considered a bit passé, this narrative truly does follow Frances through her trials and tribulations to a new maturity.
McVeigh paints an evocative scene. Her attention to detail is excellent, and neither the historical setting (both her Acknowledgements and the inside covers show the extent of her research) nor the description-explanations of life in South Africa feel laboured. The societal rules governing a woman’s life and actions are true to period: every event leading up to Frances’ emigration to South Africa – and what she experiences because of it – feels accurate without being contrived. The drama of the voyage and its consequences in South Africa is believable, for me, precisely because McVeigh has been so careful elsewhere. For example, Frances’ emigration comes because, in 1880, a woman must have the support of a man – her father dies, her uncle won’t have her, she has been brought up as a lady but lacks funds to stay in Society… Frances silently despises Dr. Matthews’ ‘possessiveness’ (55), but ultimately marrying him is the best option available to her.
Life on the ship is also well constructed, considering the second class, as opposed to first or steerage, and what this placement means for these women. Of course, the drama of the plot requires Frances to venture into the world of the first class passengers, but here too societal norms are observed and subverted by McVeigh only enough to be believable – there is a nineteenth century blanking (45-7), she relishes the freedom of not having a chaperone (65), and even the dinner conversation about the ‘redundancy’ of middle class women lacks any radical intent (82-4). In South Africa, Frances struggles, first in the veldt and then in a rough diamond mining town, unable to work out how to act or what her place is in this new society, and it is here that her trials truly begin.
I enjoyed the book immensely, and – whilst not wishing to give away major aspects of plot – must mention, finally, the moment which best illustrates McVeigh’s crafting of the overarching narrative and the quality of the writing. Because the third person angle includes Frances’ thoughts, the reader always perceives events from her point of view – usually with no reason to doubt her. Thus, the moment at which Frances realises her mistakes is the same moment we do too. I felt that McVeigh has deliberately, and very effectively, manipulated my interpretations so that I too felt monumentally stupid and naive for believing what I had for the bulk of the book. And that is what makes this book so compelling. It is a simply a story about a woman faced with complicated problems, but, crucially, a woman true to the period, dealing with life in the only ways she can.