As Vast as the Desert Itself

The Visitors: A Novel, by Sally Beauman, (HarpersCollins), 544 pages

The adjective sprawling exists just so that it can be applied to novels like Sally Beauman’s The Visitors. This novel moves back and forth across continents, decades, and communities.

This novel has two centers: an event, the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, and a character, Lucy Payne, a young girl in Egypt at the time of that discovery, recovering from typhoid. Lucy and her mother were both infected with the disease, and only Lucy survived. While Lucy travels with a family friend, her father, a classicist with no patience for anything other than academic brilliance, remains in Cambridge, living as he always has in his college rooms rather than in the family home.

In a Cairo ballet class, Lucy makes friends with two other girls: Lady Rose, whose unpredictable, beautiful mother sparkles at the center of the wealthy British set, and Frances Winlock (one of the historical characters fitted into this novel), the daughter of Herbert Winlock, field director for the New York Met’s excavations near Luxor. The girls are both sophisticated and naive watching the comings and goings—both archaeological and social—among the adults surrounding them.

One of the novel’s central questions is when Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon first entered the pharaoh’s tomb. The historical record is now clear on that question: they entered the tomb earlier than either of them admitted, surveying their find, then resealing the tomb for its official opening. The historical record also shows that both of them helped themselves to various small objects during the course of the excavation—in violation of their agreement with the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Lucy and Francis track Carter and Carnarvon’s movements, speculating about their motivations.

Because this is a sprawling book, a great deal more happens. We follow Lucy home to Cambridge where a recent graduate student, Nicola Dunsire, has levered her way into the family home, serving as governess and tutor to Lucy and amanuensis to Lucy’s father, Dr. Robert Foxe-Payne. Within a year, Nicola is Lucy’s stepmother. Lucy begins to surreptitiously sell her deceased mother’s jewelry in hopes of raising enough money to return to Egypt. Lucy summers yearly with Lady Rose and her young brother, Peter, on an estate alongside that of Lord Carnarvon. There are teas, there are puppies, there are contrasts of wealth and lifestyle.

This novel isn’t light reading; its large cast and historical backdrop require careful attention. The reader also has to be patient, waiting for abandoned threads of the story to be picked up again, for seemingly unrelated incidents to be brought together. Lucy remains a distant character throughout. Though she narrates the novel, the reader is always conscious of a deliberate distance she creates between herself and others, her determination to hold back as much of her own story as she can.

There is a great deal to chew on in this novel—both actual history and the relationships Beauman depicts among the characters. While that material occasionally rings false, it is engrossing overall, providing a satisfying mix of rewards for the reader.

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