Written by Simon Sylvester — Prepare to be haunted, entranced and intrigued by a debut novel that is anything but run of the mill. Set on the fictional Scottish isle of Bancree, The Visitors is a heady mix of myth and modern life, with a plot that ebbs and flows like the waves that surround its misty setting.
Bancree is a community hanging on to life by its fingernails. The old industries have gone, and what work remains is a boat ride away at the fish farms or whisky distillery in Tanno. Nobody moves to Bancree, and very few leave it, but as the story begins Flora is about to say goodbye to her boyfriend, Richard, who is off to study at Bristol University. He is 18 and free, while 17-year-old Flora feels trapped. She has another year at school before she can leave too.
Flo is a solitary girl who has few friends, but her interest is piqued with the arrival of a pair of strangers to Bancree. A girl her own age and an older man move into an isolated and derelict cottage on the islet known as Dog Rock. Flo feels trapped in the place she has called home since birth, while newcomer Ailsa is tired of upping sticks and moving around all the time at the behest of her father, but once they accept their differences, the pair are destined to become close.
As their friendship develops, Flora is perturbed to find herself drawn towards Ailsa’s mysterious father. He is very handsome, with an air of menace that both attracts and repels her. This is a man with secrets – and he seems fiercely determined to guard them closely.
Meanwhile, the predictability of life on a small island suffers another jolt. There is surely a simple explanation for the disappearance of local drunk Dougie MacLeod, but when another islander also vanishes, followed by a third, it is clear that something is seriously wrong. Then a body washes ashore, and the finger of suspicion points towards the newcomers. Flo is certain they are innocent, but who is going to believe the protestations of a mere teenager?
This multi-layered coming-of-age tale works brilliantly on a number of levels. Sylvester is male, and judging by his cover photo he is well past his teenage years, but he certainly has the inside track on the jumbled, hormonal brain of a solitary young girl on the cusp of womanhood. He skilfully uses memories of past visits to the Scottish Isles to create a compelling sense of place in the fictional Bancree and populates the island with a living, breathing supporting cast of characters – good, bad, and somewhere between the two… though sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which.
The main event may be the mysterious disappearances, but there is an intriguing sideshow in the form of Flo’s school project into the mythical selkies, half-seal, half-human creatures, and the stories told to her by itinerant local beachcomber and spinner of tales, Izzy. His recounting of the disturbing legends he has picked up on his travels haunt Flora’s dreams and give her pause for thought – could such things really exist?
Writer, teacher and film maker Simon Sylvester shows great skill as a storyteller in his first novel. We are treated to a potent mix of mystery, murder and myth, plus a denouement that will keep you on the edge of your reading chair. A book that will hold you in its thrall well after the final page has been turned.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars