McVeigh sets her gorgeous debut novel in the 1880s, a time of great colonial economic and social upheaval during which the tragedy of a girl’s lost innocence unfolds against the great African landscape. Through Frances Irvine, her embattled heroine, McVeigh understands and conveys the culture and viewpoint of both the European colonial settlers and the native peoples of the Kimberly region who risked their lives working the dangerous diamond mines.
At only nineteen, Frances
senses that her life ought be full of opportunity, but she feels as if she were suffocating. Her situation is made even more precarious after the death of her father. With her Irish blood and poor connections, Francis’s wealthier cousins have, until recently, refused to even acknowledge her. Apart from going to live with relatives up North, her only other offer is an invitation for marriage from physician Edwin Matthews. Harboring a quiet voice and cool gaze, Edwin seeks to whisk Francis away to the South African mining town of Kimberly.
Edwin’s words unlock a kernel of fear in Frances, contaminating her with his talk of “filth and desperation,” the agony of sadness seeping into the edges of her life.
Without her father’s protection, she has little choice but to accept Edwin’s offer. With the newly-formed Women’s Emigration Society sponsoring her voyage to a country that
might embody an opportunity for a fresh start, Francis decides to take the plunge, hoping to escape the rigid strictures of English
Francis tells herself that she has had done the right thing even as she learns to be distrustful of
Edwin's motives, a feeling made even more pronounced when, on the journey out, she makes the acquaintance of handsome, dark-lashed William Westbrook, a wealthy Kimberly mining investor. William’s well-trimmed personage enchants Frances, and his clever mix of intuition and lightheartedness puts her at ease. Capturing in an instant her grief, loneliness, and reluctance to travel to South Africa, William’s kindness makes Frances vulnerable. Unlike other men of his ilk, William doesn’t seem to be the least restrained by formalities.
What unfolds is a faithful, sometimes harrowing tale culled from an excellent store of research. Not surprisingly, Frances
is torn between plain, poor, hard-working Edwin and dashing William, who is beholden to his cousin Joseph Baier, perhaps the
wealthiest and most influential man in Kimberly. Ensconced first in Cape Town then later in ramshackle Kimberly, Frances tries in vain to adjust to her new life despite Edwin’s emotional detachment and interminable pre-occupation with a smallpox outbreak.
The African veldt both mesmerizes and repels Frances--the bleached sky, "a
brutal and pitiless heat," and white hot sun that "breathed like an oven over the desiccated plains.” Edwin is hardworking and meticulous, yet savage, brutal realist that he is, he fails time and again to connect to his wife. Frances, to her detriment, justifies her romantic fabrications in what she perceives as William Westbrook’s greater good.
As the fate of a country rides in the balance, naive Frances views her life through the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope. When her beliefs are threatened by a series of tragic contretemps, she’s forced to recognize a past she should perhaps have left forgotten.
Despite her experiences with the dirt, filth, disease, native exploitation and a self-interested Europe that seems forever to hold sway over the mines, Frances remains a likable heroine whose startling personal transformation keeps the pages turning.
Edwin’s refusal to protect Frances from the truth fails to give her the strength she needs, and she ends up inhabiting a world far starker and more brutal than she could have ever imagined. Although the sense of looming danger and unanticipated adventure are paramount, and love's fragile construct threatens to collapse around her, Frances' growth remains central to the story as she's finally held to account for her misplaced passions.