Jennifer McVeigh's debut novel The Fever Tree, the epic tale of a British woman embarking on a new life in nineteenth-century southern Africa, has been critically acclaimed and selected for Richard and Judy's Book Club in March. Here, she discussses he inspiration for the book and reveals her top five favourite stories set in Africa.
People always ask me – so what inspired you to write The Fever Tree? And of course there are lots of answers: the Victorian diary on which the story is loosely based, the landscape of southern Africa, my fascination with a character – a girl who cannot recognize love until it is too late. But there is a different answer; one I have talked about less.
I grew up as a tomboy, happier making blood brothers in the woods than painting my nails scarlet. I longed for adventure – real adventure, and spent my weekends camped in an old army tent in the garden, where the dawn light filtered through holes in the canvas (were they bullet holes or cigarette burns?). When I was twelve my dreams came true - my father took me to East Africa on safari.
We rode horses for ten days across the Masai Mara, camping at night under a sky glittering with stars, listening to the low grunts of a lion carry far across the grasslands. We galloped with herds of zebra, clouds blackening into storm. The plains lit up underneath to an iridescent gold, and I remember thinking as the horse pounded beneath me that there could never be anywhere in the world as beautiful as this. We chased ostrich, and – on a hot day – stripped the saddles off our sweat soaked horses and pushed them deep into a lake until their feet left the ground and they were straining and blowing, and it felt as though we were flying. I fell madly in love with the simplicity of the life and the exhilarating dangers of the bush.
One afternoon towards the end of the trip I felt acutely light headed. An hour later I was in the grip of a high fever. I remember the local hospital – a small, flat concrete block with the toilets ankle high in urine and water, and a man with a muddy looking bowl of instruments submerged in water who pricked my finger with one of them and took a blood sample. Malaria they said. There were no planes available to fly me to Nairobi hospital and by the time my father managed to charter one I was hanging on by a thread.
I recovered in Nairobi but the trip left me changed. The exhilaration, the adventure, the vast, remoteness of the landscape, and – at the end – the terrible sickness, had a profound effect on me, and these experiences lie at the heart of The Fever Tree.
Jennifer McVeigh's Top 5 Africa Stories
“In the biggest, brownest, muddiest river in Africa…” The Enormous Crocodile waded into my four year old life with a terrifying snap of his jaws and a reckless disdain for morality as I knew it. He wasn’t just eating children because he was hungry. He was eating them because it was fun. And I was thrilled. So began a lifelong love of the wild spaces and wild creatures of Africa.
It was Jock of the Bushveld – the most famous dog in South Africa – who brought this wilderness to life. Has there ever been a more loveable, loyal companion? My childhood hero – Jock, the runt of the litter, who was almost drowned at birth in a bucket of water – grows up to be the bravest dog on the veld. His adventures opened up to me the landscape of Africa – the lives of transport riders travelling across the great plains, the hidden dangers of the bush, the nights huddled around the camp fire, the roar of the lion, the open skies, the early mornings and the bush teeming with game.
Later, came Out of Africa, the story of my teenage dreams. ‘I had a farm in Africa.’ I couldn’t speak the words out loud, I so desperately wanted them to be true. My father had taken me on safari in Kenya. We had ridden horses across the rift valley, galloping alongside zebra and ostrich, and camped out under the stars at night. I was in love. Karen Blixen – God how I envied her. I wanted to buy a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills; to lie in bed at night listening to the rain drumming on the earth outside; to ride out with a herd of cattle many hundreds of miles across the bush to meet my husband, fighting a war with Germany. And most of all I wanted a white hunter who would take me on ‘safari’, just the two of us, for months at a time.
It wasn’t until I went to Oxford that I engaged with Africa as a real place, and began to learn a little of her history. Heart of Darkness opened my eyes. Here were Europeans in spotless white suits, and Africans in chain gangs. The dream was tainted. Africa was not a place about which one could spin fantasies. There was something terrible and degenerate at the heart of the European experience which Blixen and Hemmingway had omitted. And I felt ashamed and a little foolish for ever having wanted a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
At last, when I had spent some time in various African countries, humbled but still enamoured, I began reading A Grain of Wheat. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s story of Kenya’s fight for independence was, and remains, one the most arresting and beautifully crafted novels I have read. It showed me a different side of Africa. I learnt a little of what life was like for black Kenyans living under British rule, and – for the first time – I was reading an African novel which wasn’t from an imperial, European perspective. The difference was radical.