The Visitors by Catherine Burns

I remember seeing this book cover in a magazine when it first came out, and I was bewitched by the yellow wallpaper. Was this just a creepy image, or an intentional reference to the famous short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper? After reading The Visitors, I think an argument can be made for both.

The story centers around Marion Zetland, living in a run down house in a Northern seaside resort town in England.  She lives with her brother, John, who is preoccupied with suspicious “visitors” in the basement cellar.

Marion has not had to work due to a comfortable inheritance, and she has an almost child-like understanding of the world. She is insecure, and holds her brother up in high esteem, despite multiple instances when he has proven to not have her best interests at heart. She wishes to have a different life, but does not take action to change it. Rather she invents alternative realities (and alternative, hopeful futures) for the people she meets in her life, changing superficial relationships into imagined situations where she can have love and validation that she didn’t get from her parents and brother. Sad, right?

 

The story almost felt like an episode of Criminal Minds or Law and Order-in reverse. It’s usually at the end of a crime show that we are given a taste of a criminal’s motivation. In this novel, motives for random acts of violence and murder are all over the place, ranging from tragically accidental to egregiously sadistic. We see the upbringing of both John and Marion, and have to decide how we feel about their actions, in context. The mystery isn’t why something bad happened (a la, The Secret History’s “whydunit” style), …it is…what is actually happening and who are these “visitors”? 

This is a really creepy book, and I was psychologically captivated by Marion’s denial of the events of her upbringing. The “twist” comes at the end, when see Marion have to confront her denial…along with the consequences.

There is an element of claustrophobia and feeling trapped, hence the reason for the references to Room and Grey Gardens. However, I felt like this brand of entrapment felt a little more like mental captivity (and not just for Marion!), more like Du Maurier’s Rebecca (although there is a very real element of physical entrapment, too). I’d be so curious to know if the author was playing around with other titles!

It’s books like this that make me miss English classes, from high school through college. The literary devices of foreshadowing, metaphor, symbolism- all of it are so rich, that they beg for discussion. Highly recommend this one!

The paperback version is out June 1st. Let me know if you read it!

Trigger warnings for the book: sexual abuse, animal abuse

Source: Picked it up at the library!

Further Reading:

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