September 6th, 2014

new romantic.

Review: The Visitors by Sally Beauman

The Visitors
by Sally Beauman

After a debilitating bout of typhoid, eleven-year-old Lucy and her guardian, Miss Mack, travel to Egypt to help the child regain her health. Lucy drifts listlessly until she befriends Frances, another girl her age and the daughter of an American archaeologist. Through this connection, Lucy is given access to many of the prominent Egyptologists working in the Valley of the Kings, including the volatile Howard Carter and his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon. As Carter frantically searches for a secret lost tomb, Lucy soaks up the stories of Ancient Egypt and the society of aristocratic European colonists who treat Egypt as their personal playground for exploration.

While the starring attraction of the book is the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, there’s so much going on that it’s easy to forget that it’s coming. Lucy’s mother died from the same disease that Lucy barely survived, and her father seems to have no interest in his daughter. It’s easy to forget he exists as she tromps across Egypt with Miss Mack and Frances, but when the season ends and Lucy is forced to return to dreary Cambridge the story remains just as engrossing. The kindly, maiden-aunt-type Miss Mack is replaced by the beautiful Miss Dunsmire, an ambitious young woman that Lucy both admires and loathes as Miss Dunsmire struggles to take her mother’s place.

Miss Dunsmire was fascinating to me. She has no particular fondness for Lucy’s father, a fact she doesn’t trouble to hide from her young charge, but her seduction of the scholar teaches Lucy much about a woman’s power and how to wield it in their restrictive society. Miss Dunsmire isn’t around too often, because Lucy does focus more on her time in Egypt, but when she’s around it’s hard to pay attention to any other character.

The book spans most of the 20th century, so while Tutankhamun’s tomb plays a pivotal role it’s far from the only adventure. Early in the book, a beautiful socialite (and mother to two of Lucy’s friends in Egypt) is murdered, and the mystery of her death lingers until it’s overshadowed by fresh gossip. As the years pass, Lucy grows up, gets married, and weathers the London bombings during World War II. Her life is full of one exciting event after the next, but when she’s an old woman it’s those eyewitness accounts of Howard Carter and Tutankhamun that people want from her. It is unfortunate that this interesting character’s identity is defined to the outside world by her peripheral involvement in someone else’s adventure. But it happens – like all those Titanic survivors that people interviewed on the anniversary of the disaster.

I was also intrigued by the book’s portrayal of Howard Carter. I am familiar with his archeological work, of course, but I don’t know much about the man’s personality or personal history. The only other books I’ve ever seen him in are the Amelia Peabody stories, in which he appears to be a genial, somewhat oblivious chap. Beauman’s Carter is quite different: a man fighting insecurities about his work and social class, mercurial, difficult, suspicious, yet capable of great sympathy and kindness. It makes me want to read a biography and see which fictional Carter comes closer to the real archaeologist.

The Visitors is a rich, engrossing novel. It brings the characters to life in such a vivid yet realistic way that it’s impossible to stop reading about them. The back cover copy doesn’t do the story justice – yes, it’s about the hunt for Tutankhamun’s tomb but it’s also about so, so much more.

4.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Visitors, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Limit Vol. 1 by Keiko Suenobu
2012: Congratulations to the winners!
2011: Update: Tales of the Tudors Giveaway
2010: Fallen by David Maine
2009: News: Neil Gaiman’s Library on Shelfari
2008: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman