The Visitor, by Katherine Stansfield is written with an aching poignancy and vivid, intense descriptive powers. Set between the 1880s and the mid 1930s, it brilliantly contrasts its protagonist, Pearl, as a child, a young woman and an old woman on the verge of being sucked under by dementia, which allows Stansfield to withhold essential facts until she’s ready to allow us to piece the clues together. The past is now clearer to Pearl than the present, demonstrated by Stansfield through her clever structural weaving of past and present.
Stansfield now lives in Wales, but spent her childhood in Cornwall, and a major character in the story is the beautifully described Cornish fishing village of Morlanow, where in the last century, huge shoals of pilchards made some people rich, while others are lost at sea. Now, between the two world wars, the shoals have gone and the village is preparing to look to tourism and holidaymakers for an income.
Pearl has lived there in Morlanow all her life, and her love of swimming, which she still sneaks away to do in her nightie, comes across as her enduring pleasure. Slowly, thought memory and the troubled times of her present life, it emerges that Pearl ‘lost’ her first and only love, and has lived through an unhappy marriage with Jack, hoping that her Nicholas will return. Now, she is certain that he will. She see the signs everywhere.
This is a slender book, which does not take long to move through, but did leave me with a lot to think about. The blending of a demented woman’s dream-world and the blunt truth about life around the turn of the last century is beautifully realized.