Review: ‘The Visitors’ by Simon Sylvester

IMG_20140913_170641I went on a bit of book buying binge recently, scooping up a few newish titles by writers I hadn’t heard of and I’d read good things about. I now see the error of my ways. Well, that may be a bit dramatic, but I was sorely disappointed by the latest instalment from my aforementioned Book Binge, which was The Visitors by Simon Sylvester.

The Visitors mostly takes place on the fictional Hebridean island of Bancree where there have been a series of unusual disappearances of beloved locals, and the story is brought to us by 17 year old resident Flora (or Flo to her friends, of which – she is wont to tell us – she has few). Flora is bored by her life on Bancree, and cursed by the itchy feet that I think many of us who grew up in remote areas often are. Her boyfriend abandons her for the wild landscape of Bristol Uni, while Flora is just starting her sixth year at a school in a mainland town near to Bancree. The school where she regularly clashes with grouchy and emotionally simple girls, naturally envious of her much-noted independence and reportedly handsome boyfriend.

To be honest, I got this far through it and started questioning who this book was actually targeted at, already doubting my choice. Optimistically believing it would soon morph into the moody thriller about mysterious disappearances in the wilds of the icy Scottish wilderness that I’d read about, I persevered. The tale plodded onward with some exciting episodes involving a school project about mythical sea creatures, casual run-ins with locals, and a pretty weak smattering of stilted dialogue more suited to an evening listening to The Archers than the literary thriller this was purported to be.

Amongst all of this small town angst appear the focus of Flora’s narrative: mysterious Aisla, also 17 years old, and her phenomenally attractive father. They arrive without warning, moving into an abandoned house on an even tinier island across from Flora’s home. Flora and Aisla strike up a close friendship, seemingly bound by their shared unusual-but-attractive looks and the fact that they are the only teenagers on the island. Not a hell of a lot to go on, but hey, who am I to judge?

The father and daughter team baffle the neighbourhood but shunning any real social interactions, but don’t seem to be doing too much harm so the friendship between the girls flourishes – apparently off the page, as there is very little detail given. I could have forgiven Sylvester a lot of the clunky plot if he had only dialled down the dialogue, and spent more time on the girls’ friendship – I wanted to invest in it and know what they liked about each other, what drew them in, other than their pretty faces.

The way that the teenage girls were characterised was one of the things that most irked me about The Visitors. They seemed to be so two-dimensional, like they had been plucked out of any other throw-away teen novel/TV show/movie. It was all so lazy. And nobody thought to explain to Sylvester that there is no direct correlation between how a young woman looks and how interesting she is, or that 16 and 17 years olds can terrorise each other over a lot more than their handsome boyfriends.

To be a little fairer to the author (it is, after all, his debut novel), he clearly used his ability to describe a scene with a poetic dexterity that captured the sense of the damp chill in the air, and really brought the islands to life. There were times when I could really see the grey and changeable horizon from Bancree, and these moments were there to be treasured because soon enough they would be swallowed in the fug of cliché and the pedestrian plot that fills the rest of the book.

Using Flora’s school project as a conduit there are also unexpected flashes of fantasy in the story, and some of the chapters are pleasantly interrupted by short folk tales about selkies. Although they feel a little crowbarred in, they are a nice touch and modestly told, and add an intriguing tangential mystery to the plot. The final push contained an almost overpowering wave of drama, not entirely fitting with the molasses-like pace of the rest of book, but concludes with a disarmingly warming epilogue that despite myself I really enjoyed.

I have learned one thing on my rip-roaring adventure in bad literature: don’t trust everything people tell you, even if it’s 50:1 in favour of the book. Go with your gut, and always read the first page before buying. I mean, I could be completely wrong about this book – read it and let me know.

The Visitors is published by Quercus, and is available to buy in hardback for £16.99.

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