Book Review: The Visitors by Sally Beauman

In 1922, 11-year-old Lucy is sent to Egypt to recover from typhoid, chaperoned by the adventurous Miss Mack. While visiting the pyramids, Lucy meets Frances, the precocious daughter of an American archaeologist. The two girls become fast friends, and Lucy and Miss Mack are welcomed into the group of archaeologists (and their families) who are excavating the Valley of the Kings. Lucy and Frances, and their friends Rose and Peter, have a front-row seat as Howard Carter and his team of workers search for a tomb no one is sure exists: the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen.

I was really excited for this book — the 1920s! Egypt! The discovery of King Tut’s tomb! — but if failed to really draw me in for a few reasons. Firstly, this novel suffers from precocious young narrator syndrome. Lucy, Frances, and Rose are all between the ages of 8 and 11, and yet their interest in and grasp on the complex lives and motivations of the adults around them is far beyond what I would expect from children their age. They seemed much too mature, and impossibly perceptive. I felt this novel would have been much better if told from the perspective of someone older.

I was drawn to the setting and time period of this book, and I enjoyed the parts of it that were set in Egypt. The excavation of the Valley of the Kings and the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb is a fascinating piece of history, and it was interesting to read a novel that imagines these breakthroughs from the perspective of a bystander. Beauman is an excellent writer, and The Visitors provides a fascinating look at some intriguing events, my problems with the narrator aside.

However, as much as I enjoyed the Egyptian sections of this novel, there were some other story lines that I didn’t find as compelling. Or rather, I didn’t think they worked well in the context of this book. Lucy’s mother died of the same typhoid outbreak that Lucy is recovering from when she goes to Egypt for the first time. When Lucy returns home to England, she finds her father has hired a new housekeeper, whom he marries without much delay. Lucy and her new step-mother have a really interesting, complex relationship that I would have loved to see develop more — in a different book. I felt like Beauman was trying to do to much with this one novel, when the various plots could have been carried out better if they had been given their own space. A girl who is present for the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb makes for a fascinating story, and a girl’s complicated relationship with her young step-mother is also a compelling story — but I didn’t think they blended together well.

Overall, this novel felt a bit disconnected; there were parts of it I enjoyed and parts that really dragged. It would have been a more satisfying read, for me, if it had tried to do less; I was drawn in by the concept of a young girl mixing with the crowd of archaeologists who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, and I wish Beauman had stuck to that plot, albeit with an older narrator. I didn’t hate The Visitors, but it didn’t live up to my hopes.

 I received a copy of this novel from the publisher for review consideration.


9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Visitors by Sally Beauman

  1. i just read your “About Books Speak Volumes”. very cool that a college assignment lead to a new hobby – blogging about books.

  2. I have to admit, I’ve been pushing back reading this until I heard what you and Tanya had to say about it. I’m usually okay with child narrators, but I’m not sure if all the other pieces are going to be able to work for me. I’ll probably give it a shot, but I won’t hang on forever if it doesn’t catch me.

    • I hadn’t encountered a child narrator that really bothered me before now, but the way Lucy and her friends saw the world just didn’t feel realistic to me. Certainly give it a shot, but if it doesn’t grab you, I don’t think you would miss anything by DNFing it.

  3. I’m in the same boat as Shannon on this one. You know, reading this review makes me realize, I think my problem with the book I reviewed today (2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas) had to do with feeling like less would have been more, like it was trying to fit too much in.

  4. I was surprised to read about your disappointment with The Visitors. The Visitors was one of my favorite reads this year along with The Goldfinch. Luckily it didn’t occur to me that the main character’s observations were too mature for an 11 year old, I just accepted her thoughts and anxieties. I enjoyed the mystery of the disappearing mother and the backdrop of the discovery of Tutankahmun’s tomb. Loved the book! Love your blog!

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