The Visitors: A Novel

Image of The Visitors: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 1, 2014
Harper Collins
Reviewed by: 

The sights, sounds, and tastes of Egypt as well as Lucy’s coming of age are palatable, compelling, and alluring as the history of an age becomes the history of a woman.”

In The Visitors, New York Times bestselling author Sally Beauman provides a slight but engaging departure from the thriller-like twists of Dark Angel (2013), offering up a sweeping tale of coming-of-age amid the swelter, glitter, and sun-soaked hues of colonial Egypt.

Blending period ambiance and weaving in social mores and historical detail of 1920s and 30s, Beauman’s latest weaves a plot in interlaced time frames as Lucy Payne recounts her life story to a young American documentary filmmaker who’s gathering the gritty details of the search for King Tutenkhamun’s tomb.

The era of discovery in Egypt is in Lucy’s mind the most memorable time of her life; she obliges, albeit reluctantly, in opening her scrapbooks and unfolding her memories, perhaps for the benefit of history or perhaps as a way of reliving, once again, the time and place that has both marked and defined her. No event that would come later in Lucy’s life seems quite so significant as this one.

Eleven years old on arriving in Egypt, afflicted with the after-effects of typhoid, suffering from poor health, a broken spirit, and a “foggy mind,” Lucy seems at first an unlikely narrator for one of the greatest historical discoveries of the age: the unearthing of the much sought-after tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon.

Sent to Egypt with her propriety-minded but caring governess, Lucy is still reeling from the loss of her mother and finds no solace or reassurance in a remote relationship with her Cambridge professor father, who seems confused as to what to do with the daughter he has been left to raise alone.

Arriving in Egypt, Lucy is the picture of a sad, lonely little girl. She finds little of interest in her surroundings or in the mirror, ashamed of her wan figure and disease-ravaged hair, but she is a child of accommodating nature, and as such attempts to participate in life as a way of pleasing her caretaker.

Lucy’s devoted governess, hoping to bring the girl back to life, schedules visits to the pyramids and local dance classes, where Lucy encounters young Frances Winlock, the daughter of (real-life) American archaeologist, Herbert Winlock, curator of the New York Metropolitan of Art's Luxor-area excavations. Frances, by Lucy’s own admission, is everything Lucy is not. A fascination and the beginnings of a lifetime friendship ensue, and Lucy is treated to a ringside seat for the discovery of the famous tomb.

Friendship with Frances slowly injects new life into Lucy’s troubled, mundane existence, and Lucy catches a dose of the overarching excitement surrounding the anticipation and discovery of the new tomb. Beauman expertly weaves real life people and events into her narrative, combining them with Frances’ fictional journey.

The reader is quickly drawn into the sparkle and drama of a life among the elite of the colonial age and one of its greatest adventurers. Seen through the sometimes pragmatic and sometimes innocent eyes of a child, even well-known events take on new facets, but it is in revealing little-known gems of history, forgotten characters, and nameless local associates that Beauman’s skill really shines. The sights, sounds, and tastes of Egypt as well as Lucy’s coming of age are palatable, compelling, and alluring as the history of an age becomes the history of a woman.

Fans of Beauman’s former novels will no doubt relish this sweeping new offering, but lovers of tales told in intertwined time frames and aficionados of Egyptology will devour this meaty book whole. Those in favor of a more nuanced tale of self-discovery will also find much to like, both in precocious Frances and in Lucy, who fears there is not much in her worth liking, but finds that at times we are randomly chosen by history and at times we are intentionally chosen by others. The ghosts of those pivotal moments and life-altering relationships become the core of who we are, and in The Visitors, Beauman excavates an age and her characters down to the very core.