On the face of it, these two novels set during the 19th century may not seem to have any similarities; one is mostly about South Africa in the 1880s and the other takes place in Ireland forty years earlier, but when one compares them they do have quite a bit in common: a young and naïve female protagonist, an arranged marriage, physical and emotional violence, tragedies of loss, disease, starvation, plus politics, power plays and class injustice.
It is interesting then to compare them, why one book left me feeling dissatisfied and glum, while the other was quite the opposite and lifted my spirits.
Having written about Africa during this period myself, the first book was one that I had heard much about and was keen to read.
In the 1880s, Frances Irvine's bankrupted father dies leaving her in a precarious position. After a life of luxury and ease, she has only two options. She can live with her relatives in Manchester, who will treat her as little better than a skivvy, or she can accept the marriage proposal of a man she dislikes, now a doctor in South Africa. She chooses the doctor but on the voyage out falls in love with a dashing character involved in the diamond business at Kimberley.
On the positive side, the author does a really fabulous job with the historical background and the fine details of Victorian life at home in England, at sea, and on the road in the Cape. The challenging conditions of living in the remote Karroo and in the squalid camps of Kimberley are particularly vivid, even if the research can overwhelm in places and graphic descriptions of illnesses with fevers, loose bowels and pustules linger just a bit too long.
So, with so much going for it, it is such a disappointment then that the story and characters don't match the quality of the research. Frances is whiny, her husband Edwin is a wally [someone who can be very smart and yet stupid and irritating at the same time] and as for Frances's great passion, the wily William, he turns out to be truly obnoxious and sadistic and no amount of sexual frisson makes him attractive in my eyes.
With too much time on her hands, Frances wafts about feeling sorry for herself. The few African characters she encounters inhabit the margins as victims. It is presumed the diamond tycoon Joseph Baier is a blend of Randlords like Cecil Rhodes, Barney Barnato and Alfred Beit, among others, and everything negative and verging on anti-Semitic about Jewish tycoons is wrapped up into Baier without giving him any of the charisma that made these real life characters so contradictory and fascinating.
It was the fate of the zebra that was truly ghastly but I had been irritated by its inclusion in the first place, and couldn't understand why Frances insisted on dragging this poor wild animal around with her in the most harrowing of circumstances. There were anachronisms regarding early nurses in Kimberley that I chose to ignore in order to reach the end and discover whether whiny chose wally or wily to ride off with across the veld. I closed this book actually feeling slightly depressed and wondering why it had that effect on me. Eventually I decided that although Frances tried to redeem herself, she would have remained shallow and impractical no matter the outcome and therefore a poor reflection on the true pioneering women of 1880s Southern Africa.
3 stars - but only for the historical background and research
After a visit to Ireland last year, I had been searching for a really good novel about the famine era of the 1840s. I discovered Gracelin O'Malley and I have to agree with everything that another historical reviewer, Mirella Patzer, has said about it - read what she writes here and also for the basic plot summary.
I'd stayed briefly in the town of Macroom that is featured in this novel, also visited the abbey church at Murrisk near Croagh Patrick where many ancestral O'Malleys lie buried and which, in turn, is a short stroll from the National Famine Memorial. Whether you are Irish or not, I defy anyone not to be emotionally moved by standing in front of it with St Patrick's mountain in the background.
Right from the beginning, I liked the way the author remains unobtrusive in the telling of the story. She writes in a straightforward style, with no crafty literary devices to detract from the power of what she has to tell us. The lyricism of the narrative is a delight and true to the Irish voice and character, and on more than one occasion it brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes – and it's been a long time since a novel had the power to do that to me! I became so attached to these people - even the bad ones - that I really didn't want the book to end.
By its very nature and being set during the great famine when many English landowners treated their Irish tenants disgracefully, the novel can't avoid a certain amount of cliché, but the author has a deft way of avoiding anachronistic behaviour and Gracelin's character is not a modern woman transported back to the 1840s. She feels authentic and even with her early innocence shattered and after all the tragedies she endures and the heartbreaking choices she has to make, she remains optimistic and brave as so many Irish women would have had to be in order to survive.
Not often commented on in reviews of historical novels, is when an author uses religion correctly for the era. Too many of those writing history from the distance of our secular age brush aside or fail to acknowledge the influence and importance of religion in the majority of our ancestors' lives. It doesn't make this a “preachy” or religious book in the slightest, but it does demonstrate how people needed their faith and belief in a higher power or another world beyond this one to help them come to terms with their losses and to keep going. I compliment Ann Moore on her beautiful handling of this. The other books in the trilogy are definitely on my reading list
Sparkly 5 stars.
|Sculpture by John Behan, National Famine Memorial, Murrisk|