The Visitors

Written by Sally Beauman
Review by Marina Maxwell

In 1922, eleven-year-old Lucy Payne is sent to the invigorating climate of Egypt to aid in her recovery from a near-fatal bout of typhoid. Her chaperone brings her into contact with the elite coterie that includes Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, the men about to become world famous as the discoverers of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Lucy makes friends with Frances, the daughter of an American archaeologist, and the two girls are witnesses to the public and private affairs of the individuals around them. The story also flashes forward to the modern era, when the elderly Lucy grudgingly gives her time to the producer of a television documentary on the tomb’s discovery, and she is forced to look back to her past.

The historical research can’t be faulted, and the characterisations and motivations of the real individuals are fascinating and well-explored, as are Egyptian politics and the finer details surrounding the discovery of the tomb, but the novel is less effective in its sub-plots. Both Lucy and Frances seem just too precocious in their perceptions and conversations with the adults to be totally convincing. There are unresolved circumstances relating to the fate of a beautiful ‘bolter’, and the personal tragedies in Lucy’s later life are dealt with in an oddly perfunctory manner at the expense of shallower narratives involving her manipulative governess and her clique and these tend to overshadow the moving denouement with Frances.

A welcome plus is the cast list differentiating the real characters from the imagined, also the comprehensive closing notes and a bibliography (a map would have capped it), but ultimately this overly long book is a feat of endurance akin to struggling up and down those Egyptian sand dunes in search of a rewarding oasis and never quite reaching one.