[Review] The Visionist written by Rachel Urquhart

The Visionist - Rachel Urquhart
The Visionist
Author: Rachel Urquhart
Publisher: Simon and Schuster UK Fiction
Date of Publication: 27 February 2014
Number of Pages: 400

Rating: 2.5 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: In this exquisite, transporting debut, 15-year-old Polly Kimball sets fire to the family farm, killing her abusive father. She and her young brother find shelter in a Massachusetts Shaker community called The City of Hope. It is the Era of Manifestations, when young girls in Shaker enclaves all across the Northeast are experiencing extraordinary mystical visions, earning them the honorific of “Visionist” and bringing renown to their settlements.

The City of Hope has not yet been blessed with a Visionist, but that changes when Polly arrives and is unexpectedly exalted. As she struggles to keep her dark secrets concealed in the face of increasing scrutiny, Polly finds herself in a life-changing friendship with a young Shaker sister named Charity, a girl who will stake everything–including her faith–on Polly’s honesty and purity.

Review: Thankfully, it is an exceedingly rare occurrence that a book of 400 pages has virtually no content. This is to say, nothing really happens. There are an extraordinary amount of words but few of them equate to anything.

The story is told by three different narrators. All three are written as though we should accept them as reliable narrators, however, all three are unreliable. Their characterisations are thin and not nearly strong enough to carry the story. The only “adult”, Simon, is slightly too modern and contemporary to be convincing. He also tells the reader, in every segment, how much he dislikes his employer. A note to all authors, we do not need to be bludgeoned with the same fact at every available opportunity.

Polly is a sympathetic character but again, she is underdeveloped so I really cannot say more.

Charity, a Shaker Sister, seems plausible but the writing casts her as brainwashed, ignorant. While, not having experienced “The World” this isn’t wrong, there is something about the prose style that makes me uncomfortable with this.

The Shakers themselves are portrayed, in the most part, as mean and self centred.  Life experience tells us that just because an individual commits to a religious way of life, they don’t automatically become a good person. A religious life alone does not redeem a corrupt soul.  In The Visionist this feeling of meanness is exacerbated by the diametrically opposing characters of Sister Charity and Elder Sister Agnes.

The minor characters, connected to Simon, are given all the knowledge of Polly, her brother and her mother and this is hidden from the reader until the last few pages. All the recurring problems of ownership are neatly wrapped up in the matter of sentences. As for the development contained in the last few pages, no. This is a disturbing and strange way to end a novel. It makes me wonder if Urquhart was leaving her options open for a sequel. I certainly hope not.

In all, I found this to be an inadequate novel and I am somewhat disheartened to open another book lest I be left with similar feelings.

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