The Visionist – Rachel Urquhart

My opinion of people changes with every new piece of information I collect…

It is 1842 and fifteen-year-old Polly Kimball despises her father, Silas. ‘He hasn’t it in him to be kind, not for as long as Polly has known him. He consumes life, he sucks it dry.’ Silas is a brute. He beats his wife/Polly’s mother, May, tries to drown their son Benjamin, and repeatedly rapes Polly. As the novel begins, Polly is worried that he’s planning to kill them all and sell the farm to ‘Mister Fancy Coat’, one of the mill owners buying up farming land. Working by lamplight late at night, she organises the horse and the wagon, gets her brother and mother and then goes back into the house for one last look at her father:

Suddenly he coughed, bolting up wild-eyed to stare at her a moment before falling back on the bed. Polly jumped, stifling a scream with one hand as the lamp slid from the other. It fell, her father flopping onto his side away from her, asleep again in the silence before the crash. The sound of breaking glass was all she could hear as flames rose up in a roar from the puddle of spilled oil. Death comes easy, said a voice inside her head, her body frozen until the time for doubting had passed.

Polly’s mother takes them all to The City of Hope, the nearby Shaker community, where she deposits Polly and Ben into the sisters’ safekeeping.

While Polly’s story is told in a third person narrative, we also get an insight into the Shaker community through a first person narrator, Sister Charity. Sister Charity is also fifteen and somewhat of an outsider:

I did not arrive in childhood, like the orphans who come by the wagon-load when one of our ministers buys their freedom from a home…I was delivered as an infant, less than a month old – left without kin on a stone step at one of the entrances to the meetinghouse. I never knew a relation of the flesh.

Other sisters, ‘infected by the evils of the World’, shun Sister Charity in small but hurtful ways. When Polly arrives, Sister Charity finds an unlikely friend who will teach her unexpected and exciting things about the world.

Polly’s of great interest to the Shakers following her attendance at their first Sabbath Day Meeting where she appears transformed:

But her song – its sounds spoke of suffering without ever sinking into words. In her wails and cries resided all the Earth’s pain and sadness, yet she appeared so radiant, like an angel warrior delivered into The City of Hope to help us fight against the doom she embodied.

Polly’s declared a visionist by the community and Sister Charity is entranced by her. However, Polly knows she’s a fake – the behaviour she displayed came from the same technique she used to take herself out the experience she was having when her father raped her. One of the elders, suspects Polly is not a visionist and it seems as though it won’t be long before she’s exposed or confesses. When that happens what will Sister Charity’s reaction be? Where will Polly go?

And that’s not all: out in the World, we have a third narrator, Simon Pryor. Pryor, aged 24, is a fire inspector, private investigator and a cynic.

Though I was once an openhearted boy – with an impractical tendency to view everything in an optimistic light – I notice nothing but misery around me now. I trust no one and have little desire to seek a bond that can only, in the end, bring disappointment and despair. I once expected the world of the world, but no more.

Pryor is called upon to investigate the fire. Once there he establishes a story close to the real events of that night but chooses to cover it up for the sake of May, who he thinks might be responsible. However, Pryor is bound to local landowner and despicable human James Hurlbut who employs Prior to find May as soon as possible and establish who owns the land. But Hurlbut isn’t the only person who wants May and the property and Pryor’s going to have to work hard and fast if he’s to find May, keep his own secret safe and protect the property.

What I found most impressive about The Visionist, particularly for a debut, is the distinctiveness of the three voices. It’s also a neat narrative trick to drip feed information to the reader and have you racing through the next chapter to garner more information. Although Polly’s story was engaging and Sister Charity gave an insight into a closed community, it was Prior’s story that I found most interesting – he’s a compromised individual who has to play certain characters off against each other to save himself and the Kimball’s; his part of the plot adds a detective/thriller element that leaves you desperate to work out what’s going on.

The Visionist is a book that sits nicely on that bridge between literary and commercial fiction; there’s plenty to think about here but it’ll satisfy you if you’re looking for a page-turner too.

 

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy.

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