Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: THE VISITORS by Sally Beauman


AUTHOR: Sally Beauman
ISBN: 978-0-06-230268-7; hardcovcer (July 8, 2014)
544pp, B&W, $27.99 U.S.

The Visitors is a 2014 historical novel from New York Times bestselling author, Sally Beauman (Rebecca's Tale).  The novel is a re-creation of Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter's hunt in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, which eventually led them to Tutankhamun's tomb.  The search is seen through the eyes of a preteen English girl who is visiting the Valley of the Kings.

The Visitors opens in January 1922.  Eleven-year-old Lucy Payne has been in a Cairo for a week with her guardian, Miss Myrtle Mackenzie aka “Miss Mack.”  Lucy is recovering from typhoid, which killed her mother, and Miss Mack hopes that seeing the wonders of Ancient Egypt will stimulate Lucy and help her reengage with the world.

Through her friendship with Frances Winlock, the daughter of an American archaeologist, Lucy enters the inner circle of George Edward Stanhope Molyneaux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, aka Lord Carnarvon, and Howard Carter, the English archaeologist in charge of Carnarvon's excavations in the Valley of the Kings.  She also meets and befriends Rose and her younger brother, Peter, the children of the beautiful divorcée, Poppy d'Erlanger.  Through these friendships, Lucy becomes a first-hand witness to the intrigue, politics, and passions surrounding Carnarvon and Carter's quest.  Lucy also forms the intimate bonds that will help her survive childhood and later, adult heartbreak.

The selling point of The Visitors in its recreation of the hunt and discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb and the aftermath, and much of the novel is about that.  Beauman's account of the hunt for King Tut is, of course, based on history, but some of it is fictional.  Some of the characters are actual people, such as Carter, Carnarvon, Carnarvon's daughter (Lady Evelyn Herbert aka “Eve”), and Frances Winlock and her family.  Other characters are entirely fictional, and these include Lucy, Miss Mack, Rose and Peter, among others.

Still, both the fictional and nonfictional characters are wonderfully drawn.  When book lovers and critics use the term “rich characters,” they are talking about the kind of characters that fill The Visitors.

In a way, The Visitors is also like a girl's adventure novel, with Lucy as the curious and adventurous girl who meets all those wonderful people.  We follow her into Egypt and into the Valley of the Kings, a journey that is atmospheric and offers moments that are intensely spellbinding.

The rest of the novel is set in different time periods.  Some of it is set in 2002 in Lucy's home in Highgate, as the 90-year-old Lucy recalls her Egyptian adventures for an American Egyptologist working on a television documentary about Carnarvon and Carter's search.  The last section (or chapter) of the book, “Part 6: The Book of the Dead,” runs for just over 100 pages.  Here, Lucy of 2002 recalls her life from 1931 to the early 1940s.  In this period of Lucy's life, Beauman creates this book's most poignant storytelling and profound drama.  The rich characters offer the richest character drama in this last part of the book

Sometimes when I read The Visitors, I felt like I was reading three books.  This book is one of those novels in which there are layers of drama and subtext between the lines.  Beauman engages her readers and demands that they see past the surface text.  It is as if she offers us the chance to imagine the story beyond the one we are reading.  The highest recommendation that I can offer for The Visitors is that I did not want it to end.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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