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The Visitors by Sally Beauman

The Visitors by Sally Beauman

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The Visitors is set in 1922 in Egypt, in the Valley of the Kings, and in England at the same time, and into the future. These years parallel the life span of Lucy Payne, who we meet as an eleven year old upon her arrival in Egypt. We leave her in the final years of her long life in London more than 70 years later.

Lucy Payne is the daughter of a widowed Cambridge don, her mother the granddaughter of a wealthy American industrialist whose money will one day come to Lucy. In the meantime there is money available to take Lucy away from England where she has been ill with the typhoid fever that killed her mother.

In Egypt with her governess, Miss Mackenzie, Lucy does recover her health, both physically and emotionally. She becomes friends with Frances Winlock the exuberant daughter of Herbert Winlock from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their social circle includes the archaeologist Howard Carter and his employer Lord Carnarvon, as well as Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn, and the exuberant and scandalous Poppy d’Erlanger, with her children Rose and Peter. Carter and Carnarvon are well known as real people and the story of their work in the Valley of the Kings is related as it was  - Winlock and his family are also real but the others are not.

These characters, real and fictional, are woven into a story that intrigues, delights and satisfies. The story of the Egyptian discoveries is fascinating and is what first attracted me to this novel. But, it is the life of the fictional Lucy that is at the heart of the novel. Lucy may be motherless but she is well loved by Miss Mackenzie and lives a long and active life – always influenced by her early years in Egypt and the relationships she established at that time.

The novel alternates between long periods of time in Egypt at the beginning, to others in England as Lucy reflects on, and reveals to us, the events of her long life. Lucy is one of the few still alive who knew Carter and Carnarvon and is therefore frequently contacted by researchers – and now there is an American scholar and documentary maker from America who has come to interview her.

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Lucy at first resists his advances and is unwilling to co-operate in his project – and when she does, she very carefully allows him to discover only some of what she knows – the rest she reveals only to the reader There has always been speculation about the “curse” of Tutankhamen and the excavation of his tomb, and that is of course woven into this novel, as well as the story of the relationships and rivalries between the archaeologists and the governments of Egypt, England and America that occurred when this incredible discovery was made.

Late in life as Lucy thinks of the loved ones she has lost, the grief of the past surfaces. The losses suffered during her childhood, the death of her mother, others during the Second World War, and of course the deaths of her contemporaries as the years advance seem sometimes overwhelming.  

But there are the wonderful memories as well. When Lucy, as an elderly woman, thinks about her life she can hardly believe it all, wondering who she was when she was young. No one, imagining life as a young person can ever have any idea about how long life can be and the experiences and changes that will come to them over those many years. What 20 year old ever imagines they might be married and divorced by the time they are thirty, or widowed, or struggling as a single mother – or all the good things of course as well, the children and the friendships and the things that make life wonderful. 

Half way through this novel I was looking for information on cruises on the Nile – if only it was still the 1920’s!

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