Review: The Visitors by Simon Sylvester
Something Fishy Going On
Simon Sylvester’s first novel The Visitors is set on the fictional Scottish island of Bancree where seventeen year old Flora finds herself an outcast. Cut free by her university-bound boyfriend and ostracised by the in-crowd at school, she is counting down the days until she too can escape when the titular visitors arrive.
The newcomers, John Dobie and his daughter, Ailsa, move into the sole cottage on Dog Rock, a smaller island off the coast of Bancree, a final pebble before the raging ocean. This symbolism suits them, particularly John, an intense, menacing man who shows no interest in joining the small community. Ailsa, however, seems to be just another awkward teenager, and the two solitary girls quickly find each other.
People on Bancree are disappearing. At first the locals seek comfort in the transient nature of seasonal work and other forms of economic migration to account for the absences. But once a body has washed ashore, the islanders must face reality: a murderer is in their midst. Local suspicion is directed at the incomers, but Flora is convinced of their innocence and determined to protect them.
The Visitors is ostensibly a plot driven thriller, a whodunit with enough twists, turns and cliff-hangers to keep the reader guessing, but it can also be enjoyed as a moving piece of literary fiction. The descriptions of the island and the febrile gossip-fuelled town bring to mind Iain Banks at his sociological best, while fans of Linda Cracknell’s Call of the Undertow or Amy Sackville’s Orkney may recognise certain recurring themes.
Simon Sylvester’s first book was the Twitter fiction collection 140 Characters (Cargo, 2011) and the sentence expertise he perfected there has transferred well to the novel form. The prose is tight and lean yet lyrical and expressive, the characters pinned by a single exquisitely chosen adjective. As always with his writing (for example the stories published in Gutter over a number of issues), the prose remains subservient to the story, elucidating and entertaining without ever straying into self-indulgence.
Storytelling itself is a trope – indeed one of the characters, Izzy, is a shanachie, a storyteller – and Scottish folklore is carefully woven into the fabric of the novel. Everyone in Bancree has their own yarn, but stories are never just stories. These tales inadvertently reveal shattering truths. As in all the best mystery novels, the characters give themselves away through their choice of falsehood. Every lie has honesty at its heart.
The Visitors is a novel about alienation and loneliness. The imagery is of outliers – the island off the coast of another island, the storyteller living in a hut made from flotsam, the bullied girl with deep inner strength who knows that deliverance is merely a matter of months away. Characters and relationships are defined by distance.
Of these loners, The Dobies are the most alienated. As suspicion grows even the reader is tempted to turn against them. Yet it’s the outsiders who provide clarity and objectivity. The storyteller Izzy knows more about Bancree’s history than the locals. Ailsa introduces Flora to wonders on her doorstep she never knew existed. The solitary have time to watch and learn, but observation changes both observed and observer.
The characters we pity are the ones who cannot cope with loneliness, with rejection; who project strength as a defence. Flora learns that the moments we share with others can be spectacular, but it’s self-confidence that gives us strength. Each of us are islands, entire of ourselves.
The Visitors by Simon Sylvester
Quercus Books, RRP £8.99, 368pp