Adeliza Golding is a deafblind girl, born in late Victorian England on her father’s hop farm. Unable to interact with her loving family, she exists in a world of darkness and confusion; her only communication is with the ghosts she speaks to in her head, whom she has christened the Visitors. One day she runs out into the fields and a young hop-picker, Lottie, grabs her hand and starts drawing shapes in it. Finally Liza can communicate.
Her friendship with her teacher and with Lottie’s beloved brother Caleb leads her from the hop gardens and oyster beds of Kent to the dusty veldt of South Africa and the Boer War, and ultimately to the truth about the Visitors.
One of my biggest fears is losing my sight. The thought of losing my vision and the ability to read and to watch my girls freaks me out even to contemplate. So when I read the above cover copy for Rebecca Mascull’s debut novel The Visitors, I was immediately captured by the visual of this little girl completely cut off from sight and sound and I wondered how Mascull would portray her and let her tell her story, as from glancing at the first few pages I’d seen the book was told in Liza’s first-person perspective. The answer to that question is beautifully. I found Liza’s story haunting and evocative and if it hadn’t been for the pesky need for sleep and the fact that I have two toddlers running around, I would have finished this book in one sitting.
Adeliza, the book’s narrator, is a fascinating character. I loved the way that Mascull managed to convey her world even though she was deafblind and could only experience it through touch and smell. Adeliza is born with bad eye sight which slowly fades as her cataracts worsen. She isn’t born deaf, but contracts scarlet fever when she is two and becomes deaf from complications of the disease. Mascull’s description of the slow retreat of Liza’s senses and her growing isolation happens within the first page and a half, but is vivid and gripping, leaving me in no doubt as to her writing chops. The need to communicate is paramount in all humans and it is a relief when Liza gets the opportunity, as her growing frustration and the helplessness of not just Liza but those around her as well is almost painful. When Lottie grabs her hand and manages to connect, it forms a crack in her closed shell of a world, one that is opened further by having her undergo an, at the time, dangerous procedure which allows Liza to regain her sight. Throughout all of this we follow Liza and her voice is compelling, especially once she starts exploring the world with her new abilities. It’s an almost magical experience and Liza’s joy and wonder radiate of the page.
Liza’s almost constant companion and her window on the world is Lottie. A young woman from an oystering family, who do seasonal work at Liza’s father’s hop farm, she is a wonderful character, loving and clever. The book is as much about the love and friendship between her and Liza as about anything else. Without Lottie, Liza would have no voice, no way to have broken from her dark shell and their mutual devotion is touching. The older Liza gets the more of a well-rounded person Lottie seems to become, more of an individual with her own needs and desires, mirroring Liza’s ability to see people separate from their meaning to her.
Lottie’s twin brother Caleb is both alluring and mysterious, somewhat of the strong, silent and broody type. Given Liza’s strong attachment to Lottie it’s not surprising she’d love Caleb as much as she does, though at the same time it shows how much of a little girl she still is. Father is loving and protective and I loved that he learned all the ways to communicate with Liza. He was far from the stereotypical Victorian father figure, who is only seen at a distance and is a stern presence in his children’s lives. Instead he’s a warm and comforting presence in Liza’s existence and their bond is genuine and deep. Mother is a far more distant figure, though given her fragile (mental) health that isn’t surprising. Nevertheless, she does truly love Liza, like her father and they try to do their best by her. The Visitors, the ghostly presences only Liza can see, are fascinating. Especially at the beginning I wasn’t sure whether they were real or just signs of Liza’s underused optical nerves firing at random, but I love how they are brought along and how Liza’s understanding of them develops. In the end, they are a solid part of the plot and I thought they were a wonderful creation.
Some of the most powerful scenes in the book are those set in South Africa during the Boer War. While I knew it was a war between the Dutch and British immigrants, the particulars of that war were unknown to me and as such The Visitors proved educational. The visual descriptions are evocative and sometimes even disturbing. Caleb’s voice in his letters is distinct and the situations he relates, especially of his experiences at the refugee camp that Lottie and Liza later encounter, are harrowing and the latter feels rather current if one considers the pictures we see of modern refugee camps in Syria, Chad, the Sudan, or Kenya.
Rebecca Mascull’s The Visitors might seem a slim, little book at 256 pages, but it certainly packs a punch. It is a stunning story, told in beautiful prose and clear visuals. Mascull’s debut combines many elements – history, friendship, romance, ghost stories, adventure – and melds them into a distinctive and unique blend. The Visitors tells a story that will haunt the reader beyond its pages and I for one am glad to have been haunted by it.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.