Title: The Visitors
Author: Sally Beauman
No. of Pages: 544
Origins: Harper Books
Release Date: 8 July 2014
Bottom Line: Stunning historical tale
“Sent abroad to Egypt in 1922 to recover from the typhoid that has killed her mother, eleven-year-old Lucy becomes swept up in the feverish excitement surrounding the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. Through her friendship with Frances, the daughter of an American archaeologist, Lucy witnesses first-hand the intrigue, politics, and passions surrounding this quest. Raised in a world in which adults are often cold and unpredictable, Lucy forms an immediate bond with Frances. Their friendship sustains them throughout childhood, guides them through the class-ridden colonial society in which they grow up, and takes them into an adult life that promises fulfilment—until it veers toward heartbreak.
Deftly constructed and transportive, peopled by powerful characters, moving from the 1920s to the present day, The Visitors is a timeless coming-of-age narrative set against the backdrop of profound historical change. But how is such change documented? Whose testimony is reliable? Which witness should we believe?
Looking back on her past much later in life, viewing it from the perspective of age, Lucy tells a deeply moving story of love and loss, of mistakes made and incendiary secrets concealed. She reveals the circumstances that lie behind the most celebrated discovery ever made in the Valley of the Kings, a discovery clouded by deception, in which triumph swiftly turned to tragedy; it is a story, as she comes to see, whose truths are both elusive and occluded, one that mirrors her own. As Lord Carnarvon and the archaeologist Howard Carter force the desert to yield its treasures, Lucy reveals the extremes to which people are driven by desire—even when these extremes involve building a life around a lie.”
Thoughts: The scenes in Egypt are without a doubt some of the most breathtaking and minutely detailed scenes one will ever read. The narrative is so precise that it is easy for readers to forget that The Visitors is a work of fiction. In fact, based on the author’s notes and bibliography, one could argue that this is a work of nonfiction hiding within a fictional spine. For, Lucy interacts with all of the key figures in the exciting events of 1922, all of whom deftly come back to life under Ms. Beauman’s pen. Lucy and her fictional entourage fade into the background whenever Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon enter a scene, and her coming-of-age story has none of the excitement and tension of the Luxor dig. That does not make Lucy’s personal story less interesting. It just pales in comparison to one of the greatest archeological finds in history and the drama and secrets that surrounded it.
Lucy’s life story may not have all of the excitement of those long-ago days in Egypt but her story has all of the poignancy that one expects from a woman reflecting on her life’s path. While the Carter dig is explosive and exciting, Lucy’s path is less so but more earnest and believable as a result. Readers see her aloof and rather harsh father and her enigmatic and strong-willed stepmother. They see Lucy struggling to survive their isolating behaviors. The friendships forged in the hot Egyptian sun provide the nourishment she needs to continue to blossom albeit slowly and painfully. Each step towards independence is agonizing in its hesitancy, as the psychological trauma from mother’s death, her father’s total withdrawal from her life, and her intense but lopsided relationship with her stepmother become obvious to readers. It makes for a more emotional story than the Egyptian furor, something readers will appreciate as an excellent counterbalance to the heat and intensity of her experiences while there.
Ms. Beauman’s research to the events of 1922 is fantastically thorough. She neither condemns nor absolves Carter and Carnarvon for their actions surrounding the find but approaches this controversy with delicacy and with neutrality. One can easily use her bibliography to do his or her own research into the discovery if one so desired. However, Ms. Beauman does such an excellent job sharing the fruits of her research through Lucy’s eyes that one will find it wholly unnecessary to do so.
Ms. Beauman approaches both angles of her story with precision and an attention to detail that truly blurs the line between fact and fiction. She seamlessly weaves the very real figures at the heart of Egyptian archaeology in the 1920s with her fictional characters so that all of her characters become fully developed and totally realistic in their behaviors and attitudes. Because some of the science behind archaeological digs may be unfamiliar to readers, Ms. Beauman also takes care to thoroughly explain the process but still manages to do so in such a way that readers understand just how mind-numbingly boring such digs can be while maintaining that vibe of excitement that people associate, however falsely, with such a painstaking field of study. She follows a similar path with Lucy’s life story, approaching it carefully and delicately while keeping a reader’s interest as the story diverts to the slower pace of her life in Cambridge and beyond. The result is a novel that is spectacular in every regard.
Wow, Michelle, you hooked me. I’d never have considered adding this book to my list if I hadn’t read your review!
Thanks, Beth! I hope you enjoy it!