Review: The Visitors

Saturday, July 19, 2014

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Sent abroad to Egypt in 1922 to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother, eleven-year-old Lucy is caught up in the intrigue and excitement that surrounds the obsessive hunt for Tutankhamun's tomb. As she struggles to comprehend an adult world in which those closest to her are often cold and unpredictable, Lucy longs for a friend she can love. When she meets Frances, the daughter of an American archaeologist, her life is transformed. As the two girls spy on the grown-ups and try to understand the truth behind their evasions, a lifelong bond is formed. Haunted by the ghosts of her past, the mistakes she made and the secrets she kept, Lucy disinters her past, trying to make sense of what happened all those years ago in Cairo and the Valley of the Kings. And for the first time in her life, she comes to terms with what happened after Egypt, when Frances needed Lucy most.(from Goodreads)

Books like The Visitors are why I don't like assigning ratings in reviews. At various points, I could have rated this book two stars or four stars (on a scale of five). Nothing about this book really works like it should, the cover description is somewhat misleading, character motivations are not always consistent; there are at least three different novels stuffed into one and yet the book is overly long by a hundred pages or so. Did any of that affect my enjoyment of the book? Not at all. 

I have so many thoughts about this book that its difficult to know where to start. I suppose the most important part for potential readers to know is that while the book mainly focuses on the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, I wouldn't really say that the book is about that or even does a very good job of showing the reader the actual discovery. 

Beauman makes the odd choice of looking at that time through the eyes of 11-year old Lucy and in many ways, this choice boxes her in. We get a lot of background on Egyptology and the insular little world of British expariates in Egypt from Lucy and her friend Frances. The girl's observations are far, far too sophisticated for children of their age and the adults include them in parties and discussions in a way that I doubt would have actually happened in the 1920s. So we end up reading a lot of info-dump heavy conversations between people. That said, Beauman nails the feeling of a little world of upper-class people and their jealousies and small intruiges. I never bored of the tea parties and dinners and sailing on the Nile and felt like I was immersed in that world. 

Just when I started to feel comfortable, Beauman yanks Lucy out of Egypt and back to Cambridge to meet the woman who will become her new stepmother. This is more or less where Novel No. 2 begins - the story of a heartbroken girl  on the cusp of growing up and her difficult relationship with a young, replacement mother figure. Parts of their relationship worked for me but there were changes in the relationship that made no sense and happened far too quickly. But the little psychological details of the relationship and the barbed dialogue kept me engaged. This section reminded of a Sarah Waters novel - all oppressive, over-heated English houses and dark undercurrents of anger and jealousy. 

Then - once again - we're yanked back to Egypt and finally to the discovery of Tut's tomb in Novel No. 3. Unfortunately, Lucy only observes from afar when the tomb is finally discovered and I found myself longing to be in a novel narrated by Lady Evelyn, the daughter of Lord Carnarvon who financed the search for the tomb. She appears on the fringes of scenes but has a weighty emotional sub-plot that doesn't receive nearly enough attention. 

All of this related in flashback by an older Lucy in what is more or less Novel No. 4. In the beginning, she is clearly grappling with unpleasant memories and an unsavory secret related to the discovery of the tomb. After hundreds of pages, the revelation of the secret was definitely a letdown for me. I was far more interested in the final 75-100 pages in which we find out what happened to Lucy in the rest of her life after the discovery of the tomb. This is Novel No. 5 and it was an interesting one - set in 1930s and 40s London and full of that pre-war atmosphere and filled with all sorts of potential given Lucy's personal and professional lives. It bears only a passing connection to the the discovery of King Tut's tomb but it's still a very interesting section. 

And then somehow, all too soon and yet after a very long wait, the novel is over. I closed the book confused but most of all pleased that I had stuck with it. What will remain with me is the beautiful writing, the passages set in Egypt at night in silence as Lucy reflects on death and loss, the subtle connections between the treasures of Tut's tomb and the possessions that Lucy accumulates throughout her long life; the exquisitely detailed setting of 1920s Egypt. The Visitors is a strange, sad novel that I'm glad to have read.

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy from the publisher for review consideration.


52booksorbust said...

I totally agree about there being many novels in this novel. There were parts I loved and others that just took the story way off track. And the child narrator thing didn't work at all. But in spite of my complaints, I liked it.

Historical Fiction Notebook said...

I feel like Beauman might have started out writing a novel about the discovery of Tut's tomb, then veered off into things that interested her more and then came back to Tut because it was a good hook. Oddly enough, after reading The Visitors I now want to read more of her books!

Audra said...

YES -- everything you said had me mentally jumping up and down and clapping. I'm struggling with my review but your comments are spot on (and making me feel like I should just direct folks here than attempt my own meandering articulation of this book). I ended up liking it despite the fact it really feels like two or three novels seamed together -- it helped that I really liked Lucy and wanted to follow her everywhere.

Historical Fiction Notebook said...


It's funny that you mention directing people to my review!

I actually read about 100 pages of this back in June, stopped and then didn't pick it up again until I saw your comment on Goodreads about how good it was! We have fairly similar reading tastes so that encouraged me to pick it back up again - and I'm glad I did!

And you are very right - I would follow Lucy pretty much anywhere. I easily could have read another novel about her travel writing and her relationship with Peter during WWII.

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