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I’ve struggled to place this as it isn’t exactly a horror or crime novel in the traditional sense. You discover, or at least are able to guess who the ‘Visitors’ are early on so it isn’t exactly a mystery book but more related to the motivations of why people would do what they do. It’s very gripping, dark and quite creepy. It’s a really strong debut novel for the author.
It didn’t take long to read and the characterisation kept me hooked throughout. The story only really focuses on Marion and her brother John in detail. Initially I felt quite sympathetic to Marion but the writing style and the way the author reveals information throughout the story shows hidden depths to Marion’s character that changed my opinion of her but kept me gripped. I wanted her to succeed and get out of the situation but at the same time I couldn’t say I ‘liked’ her and her actions were often extremely disturbing. The story is set in the present but you are given a glimpse into the past through Marion’s memories which are written from a child’s perspective leaving the reader having to draw conclusions themselves. This is combined with Marion seeming quite unstable so you aren’t quite sure if you fully believe or trust her. This was a great technique that really increased the tension.
This is a well-written novel which is disturbing and full of suspense. Descriptions are overall really good that help build suspense and although not fast paced as other novels was quick enough to keep you hooked. The reason that I didn’t give it 10/10 was that I wasn’t 100% sure on the ending. I don’t want to say more though as I don’t want to spoil this for others and I see from others that they enjoyed the ending so this is probably just a personal thing.
The Vistors is one of a rare number of books in my bookcase that I could read in one sitting. While the story is not particularly fast paced it hooks you in from page one and keeps you turning page after page. Set in present time the book tells the story of a brother and sister and their seemingly boring uninteresting lives. Living together as neither have married, Marion, in her fifties is controlled by her older brother John questioning nothing he does or says. The two of them have had a testing childhood but nothing prepares you for the lengths that John goes to in order to feel loved. The book flashes back to their cold relationship with their parents and more importantly their father’s relationship with their mother and his other women. You can see from the delving into the past that John’s poor relationship with women starts from an early age, whilst Marion ends up silent and bullied after their parents favour John over her. John keeps his various female visitors down in their Georgian houses cellar and Marion turns a blind eye to his wrong doings. In denial she chooses to believe her brother as he tells her he is teaching the women English to enhance their lives. As you continue through the book though you begin to realise that Marion is not as downtrodden as she may seem and that underneath she does know her own mind. This becomes the focus of the book when John suffers a non fatal heart attack and she has to pick up the pieces of his life, including dealing with the Visitors in the cellar. I can’t reveal anymore without spoiling the twist that this book brings but rest assured that you will be hooked until the very end. I found The Vistors to be compelling and creepy, the characters interesting and the plot intriguing. It’s not what I expected, not a gory horror or a really tense thriller but a psychological character driven story that felt very real. I really liked this book finding it well written and descriptive and will certainly be looking for other books by Catherine Burns.
Maybe it’s the changing of seasons. The dusty twilight inching ever earlier, the temperature dropping: it makes you want to curl up with a glass of something and an excellent book. Or maybe it’s because some books simply lend themselves to hiding away and devouring the text in one ravenous gulp. The Visitors inspires that same page-turning hunger to read that I found when reading Emma Donoghue’s Room or Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.
It’s not just the disturbing subject matter which these books hold in common, unearthing morbid curiosity in the best of us, but the abstract point of view of the narrative. In The Visitors, we experience the story through Marion and John; middle aged siblings born to horribly dysfunctional parents who have grown up accordingly with their own unnervingly dysfunctional lives. It’s almost a study in nature vs nurture only there’s no placebo of normality, the darkness permeates every corner of these people’s sorry history and existence.
So can we sympathise with them? Not really, there are no likeable characters in this book although this didn't in any way detract from my enjoyment of it. If that’s the right word for a book that is designed to make you shudder. Marion is the embodiment of every small insecurity that any woman has ever felt, her constant fears and detailed fantasy sequences chiming with anyone who has ever spent a little too long thinking. However, Catherine Burns has written her to such an extreme that any moments of empathy make you recoil from yourself. John has no redeeming features whatsoever and serves his purpose well to keep you reading from the edge of your seat.
Of course, life got in the way of my being able to read this book in one sitting as I’d have loved to have done. But the world that Catherine Burns has created was stuck in a part of my brain until I could close this book for one final time, leaving me mulling it over when I probably should have been paying attention to the middle child’s spellings… I’ve been wondering what it is that makes a social misfit: is it genetics, experiences, a clash of culture, wealth, parenting, intelligence? Clearly it is all of these things, both in this work of fiction and in real life.
This is what is most alarming about The Visitors. It could absolutely be a story of true crime. Right through to the end, the only fantastical element to this book is the nod to spiritualism; something that you are never quite sure has been written as ‘real’ action or exaggerated in Marion’s head. The everyday and banal normality which surrounds the action, from Marion’s daytime TV habit to the collection of junk mail and household items littering the space, brings the horror very much into every day life.
This isn’t the fast paced book that you’d find in more classic crime thriller territory. The action takes place in the present and in the past in equal measure, the author peeling back the layers of history and experience of John and Marion so that we piece together lots of mini-mysteries throughout the story. It’s a twisted pathway of crime that winds throughout the book, touching every character until we finally understand what each of the siblings is capable of.
Now, how to phrase this without spoilers… considering how we are directed to expect certain horrific elements of the story, it’s testament to Catherine Burns’ plot construction that the final events are actually surprising, shocking even. A real achievement in a debut novel. It makes for a chilling yet satisfying ending to a reading experience that is full of suspense and is utterly worthy of devouring.