Reading this book is as close as I’ll ever get to the Pyramids. And that’s OK. I don’t possess the adventuress gene that’s required to step inside Egypt these days. Anyhow, after reading The Visitors I plan on checking this ancient destination off my to-do list. Author Sally Beauman took me there. At the right time too– 1922– the year archeologist Howard Carter found King Tut’s tomb.
My guide was Lucy Payne, our young narrator, who arrives in Cairo after losing her mother to typhoid. Lucy was stricken, but survived, and was sent to warmer climes to recover and regroup with Miss Mackenzie, her escort and caretaker.
Lucy and Miss “Mack” are two of more than 50 characters who populate the book. At least 30 of the characters are based upon real people, which not only boosted my Egyptology IQ but gave the novel great historical heft. For example, I had heard of Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon but never grasped the whole story behind the archeological find of the 20th century. Beauman delivered all of those details and, for good measure, supplied important supporting players who were on the scene. I met Herbert Winlock, from the Metropolitian Museum of Art, his wife Helen and their daughter Frances, who becomes Lucy’s best friend and confidant. She included Egyptian antiquities officials, dig foremen and servants, too. All real.
Beauman delayed the tomb discovery until the second half of the story, which was a tad frustrating to me. I became impatient and felt like I was the one in the desert trudging through the sand. l liked Lucy and Miss Mack and all the references to the Nile, palm trees, bazaars, the Sphinx, but I obsessed too much over what lay ahead. When Lucy’s Egyptian vacation ends, Beauman redirects the story to Cambridge where we can size up her father and new teacher/governess Nicola (think Miranda Priestly meets Anne Boleyn). Like it or not, those passages forced me to slow down, attend to our hard-luck narrator, and brace myself for all the action to come.
In due time our Lucy and Miss Mack return to a houseboat on the Nile and witness the tomb’s discovery first hand. In fact, they take a private excursion inside, and Beauman rendered those passages with lush description. She made me feel like I was breathing the same ancient dust as our excavators. There was also mystery and intrigue involving Carter, Carnarvon and Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn after the tomb was discovered. That was an unexpected bonus to the story and again, all based upon fact. The three of them sidestepped antiquities protocol, but I won’t divulge their misdeeds here. You’ll have to read that for yourself.
The Visitors will entertain anyone who dreams of Egypt or can envision life nearly a century ago when reporters traveled by train, boat and donkey to get the big story in the Valley of the Kings. A blurb on the back of the book said the novel was a combination of Death on the Nile (yes, a socialite is found dead in Cairo) and Downton Abbey. Carnarvon lives in Highclere Castle, where the Crawleys of Masterpiece Theater fame, reside. It’s a cute way to describe the convergence of time, place, characters, and events, but for me it was always about that tomb. Getting inside. And finding King Tut.