Book Review: The Visitors by Caroline Scott – The Enchanted April meets Birdsong with a smidgeon of du Maurier

Sometimes you just pick up a book for no particular reason and it’s a very pleasant surprise. The Visitors has a gorgeous cover, so that was probably what attracted me, and luckily it turned out to be quite a find. Don’t judge a book by the cover – how often have we heard that maxim, but the truth is that we often do.

This book is Esme’s story. It’s the early 1920s and Esme’s a war widow and housekeeper to fussy, but kindly, Mrs Pickering in Yorkshire. Mrs P sends Esme off to Cornwall – her doctor’s recommended rest and recovery after Mrs P had a bout of flu. Esme is to make sure the house belonging to her brother is suitable for an extended stay over summer. Gilbert, himself a war veteran, has set up a kind of seaside retreat for himself and several other men from his unit, all in need of healing. They throw themselves into art and gardening and it’s all a bit too Bohemian for Mrs P’s tastes.

Esme doesn’t hit it off with Sebastian, sent to the station to fetch her – he thinks she’s been sent to snoop – but the others soon charm her. There’s Clarrie who makes delicious meals from the garden’s bounty; Hal who doesn’t speak but who puts together miniature ships in bottles; and then there’s Rory, somewhat wild and unkempt looking, in whom Esme discovers a fellow nature lover. Esme herself writes a weekly nature diary for the Huddersfield Courier, so there are plenty of descriptions of birdlife, flowers and the variations of the weather.

Soon we’re swept into a gorgeous setting, and this in itself would be a pleasant place to be as a reader, but there’s the war and its legacy to be dealt with. Esme is still grieving for her husband Alec, killed in 1916, and as he was from Penzance is hoping a visit to his childhood home will fill in a few gaps. She’d hardly got a chance to get to know him before the war began and off he went.

But the war has its secrets and there are a few big surprises that make the story much more than a charming summery read. I found myself tugged emotionally here and there as scenes from the war – Rory also puts pen to paper – are woven through the plot. Meanwhile Esme’s own personal discoveries create a shift in her feelings and open her up to new possibilities. The plight of the women left behind with the loss of so many young men, hovers in the background. It all comes together beautifully, with some great characters in Esme and Rory, but also Mrs P and Gilbert and even Sebastian, all of whom are interesting company.

And yet it’s probably the setting of Cornwall that was most memorable for me, not just the pretty scenery, the weather, the flowers and the sea. There’s the history and folklore as well. Reading The Visitors, it’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t want to up-stakes and move there. It reminded me a little of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim with its characters similarly finding an idyllic place to heal. All in all the book was a pleasant surprise and I shall be hunting out more from Caroline Scott. This one’s a four out of five read from me.

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