I particularly enjoy historical novels that provide a window into an unfamiliar period, place, culture, or incident – a ‘well I didn’t know that’ factor. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it does lend a mild frisson of learning and interest to a good story. In that sense Rachel Urquhart’s “The Visionist” was off to a good start, since I’d never come across the ‘Shaker’ religious movement and nineteenth century Massachusetts is also a blind spot for me. Helpfully, in the prologue, the author orientates the reader to the fundamentals of the ‘shaking Quakers’ beliefs – labour well, worship, confess and shun all carnal desire – and introduces the ‘City of Hope’, wherein a community lives out these principles, cocooned away from the outside world. It is possible for sinners to seek sanctuary there, but the personal challenges are immense and for those ‘backsliders’ unable to sustain the necessary commitment, to be cast back into the unholy outside world may be the ultimate rejection.
The story is narrated by three voices. Polly Kimball– a tormented, teenage soul and victim of prolonged and systematic abuse at the hands of her father, until she sets fire to the family farmhouse and escapes with her mother and brother, only to find herself further betrayed and indentured to the Shakers; Simon Pryor – the fire inspector, required to investigate the reason for the fire and thereby settle the ownership of the abandoned property; and Sister Charity – resident of the City of Hope and lifelong believer, but recently shunned by the community due to a strange blemish on her skin, which is purported to be the work of the devil. Through these characters, the author both recounts and explains the different perspectives and builds the tension between the world inhabited by the believers and the ‘outside’. However, what becomes clear is the absence of immunity from sin and that no one has a monopoly on possession of a sound moral compass. There are good and less good people in each community and it is not the stringency of the attendant ‘rules’ that necessarily determine social ‘success’. Indeed, the book suggests it is about enough people doing the ‘right’ thing, which can be an intangible instinct derived from a sense of humanity, rather than what the rules direct.
In part, this ‘moral maze’ created by the author helped to further enhance my fascination, but the characters are also sympathetically drawn and the attention to historic detail welcome. For example, the inclusion of a pauper auction (effectively the legal enslavement of the poor) was a sobering moment, but also added a sense of authenticity, which I liked. To create such a readable story without recourse to an explicitly romantic plotline was also in keeping with the book, but perhaps hints at the confidence and courage of the writer. There is no attempt to sanitize the plot or overly gild the backdrop here and this approach gives the book a utilitarian edge, but for all that, a compelling read and Rachel Urquhart may be one to look out for in future.