Before I get started on the review, can I gush about how much I adore this cover? It looks like a vintage photograph or postcard from the 1920s era, something that no faux-sepia Instagram filter can replicate. It perfectly depicts the sense of time and place that the novel immerses you in – definitely one of the best covers choices I’ve ever seen. (Aside: I’m less enamored with the other cover, which appears to be a Disneyfied version of Egypt with neon fauna and cartoonish catamarans.)
In The Visitors, author Sally Beauman presents a fictionalized recreation of the hunt for King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Told from the point of view of Lucy, it begins in 1922 when she’s sent abroad to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother. Thanks to her loquacious guardian Miss Mack, she befriends Frances, the young daughter of an American archaeologist, and is drawn into the circle of Lord Carnavon, Howard Carter, and the other explorers painstakingly searching for the tomb. While conflict brews between the archaeologists, we glimpse the arrogance of aristocratic colonialists and the resulting tensions with the native population, who resent them for stealing Egyptian antiquities. Here, Beauman invents her answer to the still-unsolved question of whether Carter and Carnavon broke into the tomb before the arrival of the authorities and ransacked the treasures for their own coffers.Lucy is peripheral to the discovery of the tomb, but as a keen observer, notes the strains that this quest creates between the various parties.
Lucy narrates the tale from the present, where she’s being hounded by young documentary-maker Ben Fong, who is aiding a production about the discovery of the tomb. While refusing to reveal much to him, she reminiscences about her ninety-plus years of life and how she has spent it protecting the past. Her story is a people-driven drama with a number of actual historical persons featured, such as the rich Lord Carnavon, his good-natured and dependable daughter Evelyn, the outrageous and dramatic Poppy d’Erlanger (whose disappearance adds a side mystery) and the eccentric, driven archaeologist Howard Carter.
With the majority of the Egyptian cast being real, my only minor complaint was Lucy’s storyline in Cambridge, after her initial return from Egypt, which is wholly invention. She gains a disturbing governess-turned-stepmother, who seems to step straight out of a Gothic novella. This Nicola Dunshire plot didn’t meld as well with the rest of the book, though it would’ve made an awesomely creepy tale in-and-of-itself. I presume it was mostly a device to help Lucy grow up and also an impetus for her desire to return to Egypt and her friends from there, but it added possibly extraneous padding to the page count.
For such a lengthy novel, the pacing is quite sedate. While it didn’t bother me, the speed may irritate some readers. This is a slow reflection on a person’s life, and the vital historical event that shaped it. There is no real climax, no build-up except to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, after which it meanders through the subsequent years of Lucy’s past to depict what happened to the main characters in the aftermath, including through the Blitz.
In the end, The Visitors is a historical fiction at its finest. Beauman did a fantastic job concocting an accurate blend of history and creative blank-filling. I gleaned many new facts about ancient Egypt, archaeology, and life in inter-war and WWII London without feeling like I’d just read an encyclopedia. I personally find Egyptology fascinating, so perhaps I’m biased by my preference for the subject matter, but this is one of the best in this genre that I’ve read.
Highly recommend for fans of the Amelia Peabody series or anyone with an interest in Egyptology.