The Visitors by Caroline Scott
A novel of beautiful, sometimes painful, descriptions of postwar emotions in Cornwall, this vividly written book features a woman torn by war, and immobilised by grief. Esme Nicholls has been suffering after she was told of her husband Alec’s death at the Front in the First World War, desperately trying to recapture the days of their brief courtship and short marriage. This novel expertly explores how she travels to Cornwall from Huddersfield to visit the places where her husband grew up, the sights he may have seen, the atmosphere of an existence before they met. Her work of writing nature notes for a local northern newspaper cleverly accounts for her close attention to the details of the natural setting of where she stays, and this is a book which luxuriates in the world of the flowers, creatures and beauty of Cornwall in summer. The people she meets by a strange quirk of fate are those who also served in the army of the trenches and forlorn hopes, one of whom has actually written an account of his experiences which is woven into the accounts of Esme’s progress in 1923. Here the writing is visceral, including painful accounts of the dangers and appalling conditions in the trenches.This book represents a masterclass in drawing a contrast between the beauties of the natural world and the hideous nature of countryside ravaged by war. It also explores the grief common to so many in the early postwar years, the unresolved plight of the women without a body to bury, even confirmation of death. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this brilliantly written book.
As the book opens, Esme is travelling to Cornwall, realising “It was strange to know that she was finally in his county”. Having met Alec in the Huddersfield museum she was working in, she only knew him in a place he had travelled to; now she is seizing the opportunity to visit the place of his origin, desperate to catch some sense of the place he grew up, the sights he saw, the atmosphere that made him. She has studied his photograph carefully, kept so many memories, and dreamt of him. When she arrives at the large house owned by her employer’s brother Gilbert, she is taken aback at the casual welcome by these men marked by war, including the abrasively rude Sebastian and the silent Hal, who seems to have a certain insight. Rory is the practical one, the friendly man who seems to genuinely want to know her, offer his insights where wanted, and provide comfort in a sensitive way. It helps that he is attuned to the natural environment, understanding Esme’s interest in the birds and other creatures, supportive of her quietly written articles for a newspaper observing the flora and fauna. When her employer Mrs Pickering arrives she proves to be a demanding yet sympathetic character, and Esme can pursue her dreams of a vividly remembered husband. It is the arrival of a mysterious visitor that upsets Esme’s world, and leaves her wondering about her life.
With exceptional characters well described and a vivid appreciation of the countryside of post war Cornwall, this is a memorable book in so many ways. The wartime accounts are confidently written, revealing a high level of research which nevertheless does not interrupt the narrative. This is the third book that I have read by this author, and as always I am overwhelmed by her depth of writing about those who fought and those who were left behind in the “Great War”. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in that difficult time period and the way it shaped so many lives.