June 20, 2024

The Visionist, by Rachel Urquhart

Usually I send Goodreads readers to my blog; today I’m just cutting and pasting from the Goodreads review.

The VisionistThe Visionist by Rachel Urquhart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I received this book through a Goodreads First Reads promotion, I was excited to find it looked even better in print than it had in the online description. I eagerly put it on my to-read shelf, glanced at it often, and savored the anticipation. For almost a year.

I don’t know why I do this, but I hoard books to read. What do I expect–plague? the outbreak of war? home incarceration?–but I feel the need to have at all times a thick stack of reading material as insulation against some potential deprivation. Of course, as the months passed, the book got lost behind other projects, and the sight of it invoked a nagging feeling of guilt. Eventually I realized I was being unfair to both author and publisher, who in giving me this book had hoped, if not demanded, a good-faith review. Or perhaps I just built the to-read shelf up to enough bulk that I felt it safe to dig down and remove this book from the lower strata.

What started out as a four-star read became, in the end, five-star worthy. I kept having flashbacks to Alice Hoffman‘s Blackbird House, perhaps because of the setting–rural Massachusetts in the 19th century, austere poverty in a backdrop of natural beauty. Urquhart’s prose is as precise, sturdy, and intricately woven as the Shaker baskets her characters make. It frames and contains intense emotion and huge themes: love, faith, devotion, discipline, sacrifice, fear, betrayal, misery, cruelty, nobility, forgiveness, and the passionate longing for redemption. And in this Urquhart builds a fascinating, detailed portrait of life within a Shaker community in 1842, peering into the secrets of the faith, its strictures on behavior (no vanity; no reading; no carnality; no touching or indeed speaking to members of the opposite sex; no favoring of any individual over the collective) and the profound, indeed transporting joy that believers experience within the confines of these strict disciplines, which lead them not just to the physical expressions of worship that earned them the term “Shaker” but to Manifestations straight from the Divine Mother who founded their sect, expressed by the Visionists who are her chosen vessels.

The world-building gives the book a slow, deliberate beginning, as the story alternates between the points of view of Sister Charity, resident since birth of the City of Hope and a lifelong adherent to the faith, and Polly, an adolescent girl of the World outside dealing with the poverty and misery created by her abusive father and threatening not just her broken-spirited mother but her beloved, innocent brother Ben. Charity’s reflections, meditative with little scene, move between a current moment of 1902 (which is the only time the book makes those leaps ahead, and by the end, it’s not quite clear how this glimpse forward pays off) and the moment of the story, 1842, when Charity is undergoing her own tests of faith while Polly is fleeing, homeless but potentially not fatherless, to the City of Hope. Not only are she and her brother embraced by (or, in Polly’s perspective, abandoned to) the compassionate Shakers but Polly’s anxiety manifests in a way that earns her the title of Visionist and the awe of the community.

Understandably, she sees this as an avenue to ensure her own safety and protection. Understandably, Elder Sister Agnes, who feels responsible for the purity of the flock’s belief, wants to be sure that Polly’s “gift” is sincere. And poignantly, Sister Charity feels an immediate bond, bound up with fascination for and protectiveness of, this lost, intriguing girl who has shown up in their midst smelling of the exciting yet dreaded outside World moreso than the cloistered sisters whose amusements are their work, petty gossip, and unkind teasing of Sister Charity, in the nature of bored adolescent girls throughout history.

For about half of the book, the chapters between the sisters keep up the stately waltz of Polly’s introduction to the community–the prose in many places has the feel of Shaker writings, often stiffly formal and sometimes chunky in the mouth–until the introduction of a third point of view, the roguish and failure-haunted Simon Pryor, sometime fire inspector and full-time henchman of the local fat cat, James Hurlbut. Much time is spent with Pryor brooding on a past tragedy that has both indentured him to the detestable Hurlbut and deprived him of contact with his family, but more important to the story, Pryor quickly figures out what happened at the Kimball farm in Burn’s Hollow and feels the need to locate the vanished family. The suspense generated by his knowledge keeps the story moving through more of Polly’s struggles to keep her her secrets from the inquisitive Elder Sister Agnes and her deepening friendship with and affection for Charity.

But halfway in, a plot twist surfaces that ups the stakes for everyone involved, especially Polly–a final legacy of her father’s cruelty, as it were–and at that point the book becomes un-put-downable. The proses relaxes and flows, the careful world-building of the early chapters begins to pay off, and the threats of the outside world are paralleled by possible threats within the Shaker community itself, in which despite their faith the believers are, after all, subject to the same human frailties of fear, desire, hatred, and cunning as much as anyone else. The resolution is both poignantly hopeful and yet terribly sad, and one can imagine how these characters will be marked for the rest of their lives by the vivid events of this winter. Yet the book as a whole is entirely satisfying, a beautiful accomplishment and a haunting read. It conveys the enjoyment of an artifact well-made and built to last, much like the lauded quality of Shaker goods.

It’s always impressive when an author can bring the past to life as more than a stage upon which characters in historical costume articulate modern fears and sentiments. Urquhart’s book makes real a little-known place and time that still speaks to the most urgent longings of the human heart. My only regret is that it will probably be some time before anything that surfaces from my to-read stack is this good.

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