The Visitors is the debut novel from writer Simon Sylvester, who has already seen a number of short stories published. Telling the story of Flora, a seventeen year old girl living on the isolated Scottish island of Bancree, who makes friends with new arrival to the community Ailsa. Ailsa’s arrival with her father comes during a spate of disappearances on the island, and as the victims become people closer and closer to Flora, she becomes determined to find out who is responsible.
There are a great many things to recommend about the novel, not least its satisfying plot, which, although never quite answering all of the questions posed, manages to solve its central mystery in a very smart way. In fact, the whole climax of the book is nothing less than thrilling, and you’ll likely find yourself stealing away the hours ploughing through to get to the conclusion. Sylvester also manages to write a convincing seventeen year old girl, no small feat, Flora is realistic and interesting. Whilst she is a loner at school, she never comes across as a cliché, and nor do any of the other characters. When one main cast member disappears around a third of the way through the book, it is a genuinely crushing moment.
The island of Bancree itself is also well written, there is a strong sense of place throughout, and you definitely get a sense of this isolated community. Isolation is certainly a big theme in the book, Flora is isolated at school until the arrival of Ailsa, disappearances throughout the book reduce the size of the community more and more, and all of this plays very well to the central theme of the book which is, ostensibly a coming of age tale. Flora cannot wait to leave the island and get on with her life, and throughout the book there is a sense of her shaking off the things she held on to in her youth, the first to go is her boyfriend who dumps her in the opening chapters, but things get far darker as the book continues.
Another huge part of the book is the selkie myths and stories from around the world. Selkies, for those who don’t know, are a traditional mythological creature, somewhere between mermaids and werewolves. They are men and women in sealskins, who come out of the water to seduce/be seduced by humans. A great deal of the plot of the novel surrounds the selkie myth, and the various interpretations from different cultures, and Sylvester does a great job analysing them and retelling them to us, without it ever seeming forced.
The book is nicely ambiguous, falling somewhere between fantasy, horror and crime, reminding me a great deal of John Lindquist’s debut Let the Right One In. As far as debuts go, it is easily the strongest of the year, and one of the strongest genre-fiction debuts in recent memory. Simon Sylvester is going to be a name you are going to be hearing much more from in the future, and I am very much looking forward to his next novel.
Any Cop?: A wholly successful debut novel, packed with interesting characters, The Visitors should not be missed.