In late Victorian Kent deaf blind girl Adeliza Golding lives in a dark confusing world where she is unable to communicate with anyone other than the ghosts she speaks to in her mind: these apparitions she calls the Visitors. One day, in a fit of crazed desperation, she runs out into the hop fields that form part of her family farm and a young hopper, Lottie, grabs hold of her hand and makes strange patterns in her palm, speaking to her for the first time. At last Adeliza finds a way to communicate with the outside world. Her friendship with Lottie and eventually with her brother Caleb lead Adeliza to the Boer War in South Africa where she finally understands the nature of the Visitors.
The Visitors is Mascull’s debut novel and it is very accomplished. The novel starts with the moment of Adeliza’s birth (from her point of view) and immediately we are introduced to a strong unique voice that carries us through the whole novel:
“I enter the world in a flood of fluid and blood… When I cry out and open my eyes I see a grey blue. Within it crowds a host of faces… This is my first meeting with the Visitors.”
The story is one of friendship, of love and loss, of adventure and at its heart a compelling and affecting ghost story. I was particular impressed by Mascull’s ability to enter the mind of a deaf blind girl unable to communicate and render that experience in the one thing she knows nothing of: words. Adeliza describes herself as ‘a wild animal kept in a tame house’ and we certainly feel how her frustration and inability to communicate render her tempestuous and often uncivilised, particularly in the straight Victorian times where the noises she makes are distasteful to those around her. As her education progresses under Lottie’s tutorship, we feel her grow and her frustration with the world lessen. As Adeliza says:
“I have my hands to talk, my books to read and my pen to write my thoughts. Now I am a person.”
This is the great triumph of this book – that Mascull makes us consider head on what it is that makes us human and here it is language and communication that tames the wild Aleliza.
Historical novels can often fall down when we hear the characters describing the era to us in a false forced manner so that we as the reader can see it clearly when it’s obvious that to them the setting is unremarkable and unworthy of note. Here though Adeliza experiences the world at the same time as us so her descriptions are fresh and vivid and Victorian England is portrayed beautifully using all the senses. When the story moves to South Africa there is the same clarity of vision, the hustle and bustle of the port side evoked dramatically for the reader.
The characters here are engaging and well drawn. I suspect from reading the acknowledgements at the end that there was a little concern over Caleb, that perhaps he would come across as unsympathetic. He has his faults certainly and isn’t always likeable, but nonetheless I felt him to be an interesting and successful character with his faults rendering him human and therefore believable. His darker side acts as a counterpoint for the generally nice Adeliza and Lottie, giving light and shade to the novel that would otherwise have been lacking.
My only criticism of the book concerns a section in the middle when Adeliza and Lottie receive letters from Caleb who has enlisted to fight in the Boer War. Three of these letters arrive at once and we read them one after another. Caleb’s voice is not as engaging as Adeliza’s and I found my attention waning here, wanting to get back to the story rather than hear his opinion on the war and felt that this section could have been trimmed without losing anything of the story.
Any Cop?: This is an engaging, fresh story that approaches its subject matter with insight and delicacy.