As I’m not a big historical fiction fan and I have serious issues with child narrators, The Visitors, which is the first-person narrated story of Adeliza Golding, born in 1884, should’ve been exactly the sort of book that bores me. It comes as some surprise then for me to be writing about how much I loved it.
Adeliza Golding is ‘the miracle who survived’ – her mother has had five pregnancies prior to Adeliza, none of which made it to term. Adeliza can barely see and when she’s two, contracts scarlet fever which destroys her hearing as well.
By three I am totally deaf and blind. The words I had learned wither like muscles unused.
Soon, Adeliza is ‘a blind deaf-mute’ and she begins to use her fingers to explore the house she and her parents live in. This gets her into trouble often, particularly in the kitchen, and she is put in her bedroom. However, she is not alone:
[The Visitors] are with me often. They come and go. I can sense them when my eyes are open. But the moment I drop my eyelids, their presence dissolves. I have no visual memories to understand the sight of them. But the Visitors are there….I know if a Visitor feels melancholy, nervous, calm or cordial by an inner sense, a vibration that creeps into my brain as warmth or cold spreads through the skin…I cannot converse with the Visitors because I have no words. Yet I know they want to tell me things. They are waiting for me to act, to do something for them, though I have no idea what purpose this may be.
Adeliza’s father is rich. A landowner who farms hops, he has ‘his land, his precious crop, his staff, his work’ to consider. Each summer, seasonal workers arrive to pick and dry the hops. One day, Adeliza escapes from her room and into the hop garden where she careens from worker to worker until ‘I feel a hand touch mine…It begins to move, making shapes’.
The hand belongs to Lottie Crowe, a young woman whose family are oyster farmers but take work each summer on the Golding property. She has been taught to finger sign and begins to teach Adeliza who calms down now she has a means with which to communicate. Adeliza’s father employs Lottie as a governess. Lottie’s teaching has a far-reaching consequence though:
The Visitors speak with me now…The moment my mind opened to language, they came streaming in, desperate to communicate with me…Yet they do not make the shapes in my hand, as they do not share the same territory as my family and the servants. But I can hear them inside my head.
And then two other things happen that will have a profound impact on Adeliza’s life. Firstly, she goes to meet a doctor in London who says that he can operate on her eyes and she may be able to see again and secondly, she goes to visit Lottie’s family and meets her brother, Caleb, with whom she begins a life-long friendship.
The Visitors follows Adeliza through to her twenties. It is a period that will encompass the Boer War as well as love, death and the revelation of what Adeliza can do for the Visitors and, ultimately, what they can do for her.
I genuinely did love this book, partly because Adeliza doesn’t remain a young child – she’s into her teens fairly early on in the novel – but also because it was beautifully written and considered themes of class and the treatment of women, particularly during the war. In voice, themes and style, it reminded me of Helen Dunmore’s early novels. Rebecca Mascull is undoubtedly an author to watch, I’m already looking forward to reading her next book.
Thanks to Rebecca Mascull for the review copy.