The Visionist

Written by Rachel Urquhart
Review by Ann Chamberlin

Three strong and haunting voices tell this tale set mostly among the Shakers of Massachusetts in the 1840s. The first voice is that of Sister Charity, left on the doorstep of the City of Hope community as an infant; she knows no other life than this of strict sexual segregation, where new members come only as she did, from the wicked, complicated World. In her lifetime, the Shakers received visitations from the heavenly world beyond in the form of speaking in tongues and other artistic manifestations.

Polly grows up in the World, and very complicated it is indeed, with a father so abusive that her little brother Ben is brain damaged from one of the madman’s attacks, an attack Polly blames herself for. Finally Polly takes the initiative to get her brother and their bludgeoned mother to escape with her. Her final act sets the house on fire with their father asleep, drunk in bed. To cover their traces, their mother brings Ben and Polly to be cared for by the Shakers, where on her first day, Polly’s traumatic past causes her to become a Visionist.

Enter the third voice, Simon Pryor, a young man prematurely cynical from the underhanded life he is forced to live, investigating suspicious fires and reporting back to worldly land speculators who hope to profit.

The cover of this book is beautiful, a golden Shaker tree set over the haunting photograph of a woman of the sect in all her simplicity. In this case, the book itself outshines even this beautiful design, the language rich with pitch-perfect metaphor of the simplest things from the time. Belief foreign to us seems real – a rare and difficult thing in historical novels – even when it is brutal or open to exploitation.