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Book Review: The Visitors

By (July 5, 2014) 2 Comments

The Visitorsthe visitors cover

by Sally Beauman

HarperCollins, 2014


At one point part-way through Sally Beauman’s lush and entrancing new novel The Visitors, its young heroine Lucy Payne falls into an old familiar nightmare:

I was back in the Egyptian Museum, compelled to walk past that fearsome line of mummies again …All the mummies were in a state of distress, protesting at the labels describing them and their lives, insisting the Museum officials were mistaken: it hadn’t been like that, they hadn’t been like that; their identities were confused, or distorted; subverted, or just plain wrong.

Something of that same furor buzzes through most of this long novel, in which Lucy, now an old woman living in London, reflects on the days nearly a century ago, when she was sent as an 11-year-old girl by her family to Egypt to recuperate from typhoid. The year is 1922, when famed archeologist Howard Carter (bankrolled by Lord Carnarvon, whose country seat of Highclere will now be famous to millions of people as the setting for Downton Abbey) will discover and open the tomb of the boy-Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Lucy is chaperoned by her watchful caretaker Miss McKenzie, and she befriends a girl slightly younger than herself, Frances Winlock, the daughter of a man who is both one of Carter’s fellow archeologists and, as Beauman all but openly admits, an excellent source of exposition:

How different it was to tour the Coptic churches or Saladin’s citadel in her unpredictable company. How much more rewarding to explore the hot vast Egyptian Museum with her and with her father, who’d sometimes take time off to give us expert guidance. With a genial Herbert Winlock at my side, I could patch up some of the gaps in my understanding …

That kind of exposition hangs around The Visitors like a warm, embracing fog. We get local customs, dress, accent, every little detail about the legendary Shepheard’s Hotel, nativist Egyptian politics and the “Tommyrot” imperialist jingo of the British Protectorate, plus wildlife, weather, and gigantic heapings of Egyptology, and while this might be wayward fiction, it’s all very captivating storytelling, all of it smoothed around the edges because it’s provided in the form of aged Lucy’s fond memories.

She has cause to revisit those memories because she’s being importuned in present-day London by energetic young go-getter Ben Fong, who’s preparing a lavish HBO-style docu-drama on the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and very much wants to use Lucy’s memories in order to provide “atmosphere” for the production (at least, that’s his initial intention; once it becomes clear that Lucy is hiding some secrets about what really happened in the tumultuous events surrounding the Carter expedition, both Fong and we become a bit more intrigued). She does her best to dissuade and distract Fong, but his intrusion into her life prompts the flood of her memories – and Beauman uses this creaky old device (most famously exploited in James Cameron’s Titanic) to unabashedly gaudy effect, bringing all the major players in the drama to life:

Something about Howard Carter fascinated me – perhaps the fact that I could not decide which aspects of him were genuine, and which fakery or pretence. He had a piratical air, though he disguised it beneath a Homburg had and gentlemanly, well-cut suits. He had a natty, substantial mustache, large white teeth that flashed in a threatening way when he smiled, a long chin, and sleek hair; he seemed given to mischievous satiric flourishes, raising his hat with great zeal to female guests, for instance, as they crossed paths in the lobby.

There are minor players too, and one of them – a flapper-esque young woman somewhat obviously called Mrs. “Poppy” d’Erlanger (as another character, no doubt well-versed in Christie and Wodehouse, remarks, “lord only knows what goes on in that beautiful head of hers”) – adds decidedly non-nostalgic fuel to the plot when she mysteriously disappears and then turns up murdered. From that point on, Beauman expands her narrative to attempt a handful of registers, not just historical mystery but murder mystery, not just a coming-of-age story but multiple time-periods all juxtaposed in sharper and sharper relation to each other. And while the separate parts have some oversights and some sloppiness (characters tend too often to talk in not only cliches but anachronistic cliches, and phrases are repeated more often than a sharp-eyed editor should have allowed; we’re told, for instance, at least four times that old Lucy’s arthritis was in “full winter ascendancy”), the whole assemblage is an extremely effective work of historical fiction. And the last 70 pages constitute a petit allegro of revelations and counter-revelations that will leave even the most skeptical readers breathlessly moved.