The Visitors by Caroline Scott: An unforgettable tale of comradeship, love, loyalty and hope - book review -
Five years after the end of the Great War, Esme Nicholls has still not come to terms with the death of her beloved husband on the battlefields of France in 1916.
But now she has a chance to spend the summer in Alec’s home town of Penzance in Cornwall where she hopes to fill the ‘gaps’ in his story, understand what happened to him, and finally learn to accept that she is no longer a wife but a widow.
The First World War remains one of the most devastating conflicts in history, particularly in terms of the scale and manner of deaths. But even after the guns fell silent in 1918, the bitter legacy of a cruel war lingered on for decades as those who were bereaved faced the terrible grief of losing their loved ones, and the broken survivors coped with the devastating physical and mental scars.
Historian and highly acclaimed author Caroline Scott – whose haunting novels, The Photographer of the Lost and When I Come Home Again, contemplated different aspects of the aftermath of war – returns to this emotive backdrop for another powerful exploration of the challenges faced by returning soldiers, and the personal struggles of one woman finding her voice and choosing her own path into the future.
Inspired to write about this pivotal period by her Lancashire family’s wartime memorabilia, Scott sweeps us away to the summer of 1923 and the sunlit beauty of Cornwall alongside Esme, a war widow from Huddersfield who is currently working as housekeeper to Mrs Fenella Pickering.
Being ‘in service’ is a long way from the challenging and stimulating job Esme had been taught to expect as a grammar school girl but Alec’s death has left her a woman of limited means and restricted options.
Mrs Pickering’s artist brother Gilbert Edgerton has a rambling seaside home, Espérance House in Penzance, where he lives a bohemian existence with some former soldiers of his wartime regiment, and Esme is accompanying her employer for a three-month visit.
Esme’s memories of journalist Alec’s face are fading to his ‘photograph smile’ and, as he grew up in Penzance, she is hoping to learn more about the man she loved and lost, but about whom she knows surprisingly little. Finding out more about Alec could make it easier to accept being his widow.
Meanwhile, Esme is fascinated by this community of eccentric artists and comrades in Gilbert’s home and, as she gets to know the men and their stories, and becomes aware that the heat, colour and scents of Cornwall are awakening her senses, she begins to feel this summer might be exactly what she needs.
But everything is not as idyllic as it seems… a mysterious new arrival at Espérance House later in the summer will turn Esme’s world upside down, and make her question everything she thought she knew about her life and the people in it.
The end of the Great War brought with it a new social and political landscape in Europe but, in the immediate years after the conflict ended, a mixture of grief, anger, guilt and bewilderment lay like a pall over so many thousands of fractured lives.
And in this way, Espérance – a house whose meaning and purpose is to bring hope – becomes a microcosm of a moment in time as a group of former brothers-in-arms, still burdened by their painful memories, and a young woman haunted by the loss of her husband, try to build a bridge of healing to the years ahead.
Written with breathtaking beauty, sensuality, honesty and insight, Scott’s compassionate and compelling mystery story melds a cast of achingly real characters into a landscape of glittering, white-edged seas, ridged and rippled sand, azure skies and light rendered exquisitely iridescent and elemental.
Esme’s story becomes the story of so many women whose often short-lived marriages left their lives in limbo, anxious to cling on to their fading memories, heartsick that their happiness proved to be so brutally cut short, and uncertain about what the future might now hold.
For the men of Espérance – enduring the effects of what we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder – their mental pain and suffering reveal harsh truths about the human cost of armed conflict and expose some of the shadowy corners of warfare’s aftermath that are rarely visited.
But The Visitors – which unfolds with the help of memoirs, newspaper columns and the timeless wonders of the natural world – is also an unforgettable tale of comradeship, love, loyalty, hope and the possibility of new beginnings in a world that had seemed impossibly broken.
Guaranteed to steal your heart…
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £16.99)