Quercus | 2017 (4 May) | 357p | Review copy | Buy the book
Professor Olivia Sweetman has it all – she combines her role as a professor of history with a successful writing career as well as being a familiar face on television presenting documentaries. Her latest book is about to be launched at London’s rather unusual and wonderful Hunterian Museum. The book, called Annabel, is based on the diary of Annabel Burley, a pioneering Victorian figure and one of the first female doctors, whose career hid, until now, a potentially enormous scandal. Annabel is Olivia’s first book aimed at a general readership and no-one is in any doubt that it will be hugely successful. Perhaps too successful! Because Olivia is fighting off offers to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. Celebrity Pointless she can just about cope with, but dancing on TV in front of millions?!
But standing there at the Hunterian Museum, watched by fans and colleagues, as well as by her talented husband, David, also a writer, Olivia is terrified. Her life is out of control. And it all began when she met Vivian Tester, the 60-year-old housekeeper of Ileford Manor in Sussex and the curious and awkward woman who found the diary upon which Olivia’s book is based.
The Night Visitor presents the extraordinary tale of Olivia and Vivian in an engrossing and compelling way, with chapters alternating between them and also looking back into the past. Vivian tells her story in her own words and yet she is even more closed off to us than Olivia, whose descent into crisis is told in the third person. Both women protect secrets and they take care to keep them from us but as we move backwards and forwards through time their lives slowly unravel. At times it is deeply disturbing, encouraged by the recurring references to beetles, and there are moments of real horror. The fact that we see some events from more than one perspective also alters their meaning. The ground constantly shifts as we learn that there is nothing we can hang on to.
The novel moves around some gorgeous landscapes, especially in France, and the places and the people in them are beautifully evoked. Lucy Atkins is a wonderful writer. I loved the scenes in France, the mix of summer and something deeply frightening. And sometimes events happen and we never really find out what happened. I liked that. Olivia is in trouble and the vagueness of the threat around her, her doubts about what is happening, intensify our worry and her dread.
There are little glimpses of humour and the macabre. There is something of the Victorian melodrama about some of the novel and Annabel does have significance beyond her diary, particularly in the novel’s portrayal of marriage and female independence.
Both Olivia and Vivian are fascinating characters. I didn’t find either especially likeable, including Olivia, but I couldn’t wait to find out how the story would finish. I did guess little bits of it but not all. I also enjoyed how the novel would make me think one thing and then turn it around completely. This happened in little ways all the time. There isn’t a narrator in this novel that can be trusted. But what they say, they say it beautifully.