Tag Archives: bloomsbury

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

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.


Underground Time by Delphine De Vigan

Review by Allison Slegenthaler

The central problem with Underground Time, Delphine de Vigan’s 2009 novel, is that it is trying to be too many things at once. Is it a philosophical meditation on isolation? A romance? An examination of bullying in the workplace? All these options remain on the table for the duration, and the book suffers for its lack of commitment.

Underground Time follows two Parisians through a single day, the twentieth of May: Mathilde, a businesswoman, and Thibault, a paramedic. Both are deeply unhappy with their lives, dragged along by the bustle of modern life and the loneliness of the city they inhabit. Much of the book is spent taking a long, slow path through the minds of Mathilde and Thibault, revisiting memories which recall better, more connected times in their lives. Thibault is a bachelor, Mathilde a widow, and essentially they are loners. No friends are mentioned, no meaningful adult relationships endure – Thibault’s lover, the distant Lila, is gone within the first thirty pages, and Mathilde’s most enduring connections are to her young sons.

At the same time, there’s a constant thread running through both stories implying that today, the twentieth of May, is the day both Mathilde and Thibault will meet the one person who can fix their lives forever. It’s not much of a leap on the reader’s part to see that we’re supposed to want them to get together by the end, but unfortunately this facet of the plot feels artificially tacked on. The real thrust of Underground Time, and the aspect of it worth focussing on, hinges on how these two people, who live very different lives with distinct concerns and motivations, will find their ways out of the holes they’ve landed in.

Mathilde’s story is really what holds the narrative together: it’s Gaslight updated for the boardroom, and the slow lurch towards the climax is the best writing de Vigan offers (she has an irritating habit of peppering her writing with incomplete sentences, breaking up the flow). Jacques, Mathilde’s boss, is slowly removing all traces of Mathilde’s presence from their office while pretending nothing is wrong, and she struggles to understand his motivations and to re-assert herself as a meaningful contributor to her workplace.

Thibault’s half of the book – which chronicles the various emergency calls he responds to during the day, visiting other lonely and desperate people in Paris – is not really as arresting or salient at Mathilde’s, especially (I suspect) for anyone interested in CWWS. I would have preferred to have the entirety of Underground Time devoted to Mathilde, especially as Thibault turns out to be, essentially, a cipher. Underground Time never really stops being about Mathilde, even when she’s absent from the page, and the words spent away from her feel wasted. If anything, the device that keeps threatening to bring Mathilde and Thibault together detracts from rather than enhances the plot, and any nods to romance only feel perfunctory.

Underground Time has the germ of a good novel in it, but unfortunately that germ didn’t quite develop the way it might have. Read it for Mathilde’s extraordinary poise under pressure; skip the rest.

Redemption Song: Gloria by Kerry Young

Review by Kathryn Smoraczewska

Kerry’ Young’s Gloria (2013) is a confident second novel. From the author of Pao (2011) comes the interlinked story of Gloria Campbell, a young, poor black women growing up in mid-twentieth century Jamaica. Her story begins in 1938 when dramatic events in her rural hometown force her to flee to Kingston with her younger sister. Here she struggles to build a life for herself and to protect those that she cares about from the injustices of poverty. The narrative winds its way through 34 years of ups and downs, for both protagonist and nation.

gloria youngYoung’s prose is compelling; narrated from Gloria’s perspective in present-tense Jamaican patois, its striking rhythm allows the reader to hear the idiosyncrasies of each finely-drawn character’s speech patterns. As Gloria’s confidence grows throughout the course of the novel, so too does the articulacy of her narration. This effect is subtle where it could have been laboured in the hands of a clumsier writer, and it really allows the reader to get under the protagonist’s skin and grow empathetically with her. Gloria is a well- rounded character, never idealised by the author, but sympathetic in her imperfection. The supporting cast are evoked equally powerfully, and although the majority are criminals of one stripe or another, for the most part the reader is on their side, which is vital to retaining interest in the strongly character-driven plot.

Young claims that her intention was to bring different aspects of Jamaica to the western reader’s attention, by focusing on marginalised communities and characters. This is without doubt achieved, and the author strongly engages with issues of identity, class and gender, demonstrating how these different variables impact on the characters’ diverse experiences whilst contextualising her narrative in socio-historical terms. This approach is interesting, particularly when Young looks outside Jamaica, and focuses on Cuba as a counterpoint.However, the text never quite achieves the breadth of scope one expects of a historical novel, and the political history is uneven and episodic rather than sustained and well-integrated into the narrative. Nonetheless, from a feminist perspective, the author’s technique is largely successful; her storytelling frequently results in an honest and compassionate appraisal of the challenges faced by women of different backgrounds – sexual violence, prostitution and motherhood are all addressed with respectful and controlled understatement.

Unfortunately, at other points it seems as though the author has a checklist of sexual and gender based oppression that she is trying to race through by the end of the book. The end result is that some issues are paid lip service, smacking of tokenism, and her impassioned plea for the improvement of women’s lives is not delivered as powerfully to the reader as it might have been. Indeed, the fact that the most explicit exposition of how the sex/gender system harms women comes from one of the male characters is particularly problematic – doubtless Young’s intention was good, but the decision to put this key soliloquy in a man’s mouth comes across as condescending, not to mention the fact that it prevents her otherwise strong female lead from realising what the events of her own life should have made abundantly clear. Instead, Gloria is forced into the position of naive pupil, at the point in the narrative when the author should be celebrating her independence, intelligence and strength.

Overall Young’s novel shows promise, and we can doubtless look forward to her building on her successes in her future work.