England, 1923. Like thousands upon thousands of other young women, Esme Nicholls is a widow. Husband Alec lies in a functional grave in a military cemetery in Flanders. His face remains in a few photographs, and in her memories. Left penniless, she ekes out a living by writing a nature-notes feature for a northern provincial newspaper, and serving as a personal assistant to an older widow, Mrs Pickering. Mrs P has the advantage of being able to visit her husband’s grave whenever she wants, as he was not a victim of the war.
Mrs P decides she would like to visit her brother in Cornwall. and sends Esme on ahead. Gilbert Stanedge, funded by his sister, presides over a community of damaged young men he once commanded during the war. They live in a rambling old house they have renamed Espérance. Each man has been scarred – physically and mentally – by the horrors they faced in the trenches. Sebastian, Hal, Clarence and Rory contribute as best they can – paintings, pottery, husbandry – to the upkeep of the house.
Esme’s initial reluctance to go to Cornwall is tempered by the fact that it was where Alec grew up. Could a visit to the street where he lived, or a stroll along the beaches he played on as a child keep the flame of remembrance burning a little brighter, for a little longer?
Caroline Scott (right) treats us to a high summer in Cornwall, where every flower, rustle of leaves in the breeze and flit of insect is described with almost intoxicating detail. Readers who remember her previous novel When I Come Home Again will be unsurprised by this detail. In the novel, she references that greatest of all poet of England’s nature, John Clare, but I also sense something of Matthew Arnold’s poems The Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis, so memorably set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Another clever plot device brings us face to face with the horrors that the men faced in the trenches of Flanders. Rory has written a book detailing what happened. It is still unpublished but, as Esme grows closer to him, he lets her read it. She is still, of course searching for something – anything – of Alec.
Half way through the novel, Caroline Scott employs a vertiginous plot twist. Readers must decide for themselves if it is plausible. Further detail from me would be a spoiler, but yes, after a few raised eyebrows it did work. The Visitors is an astonishing tale of love, betrayal, heartache and – finally – redemption. With its two predecessors (click on the images below for more information) it makes a remarkable trilogy of novels about the men and women who survived the carnage of 1914 – 1918, but came away with scars and damage that sometimes never healed. Published by Simon & Schuster, The Visitors is out now.