SHORT AND SWEET REVIEW: THE VISIONIST BY RACHEL URQUHART

Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet). Sometimes I have too many books to do a full-length review! 

I knew very little of the Shakers before I read The Visionist … and if you’d asked what I knew, I would have said furniture. Yes, the Shakers are well known for their simple, practical but beautifully made furniture, but less is known about the religious movement itself. Reading The Visionist provided me with some insight into the movement, which is why I was initially drawn to the book. Here’s the blurb:  

The Visionist‘It was years before a Visionist came to the City of Hope. How could I have fathomed that her presence in our small, remote sanctuary – as unforeseen to her as to anyone – would change everything?’ 

Massachusetts, 1842. Fifteen-year-old Polly Kimball sets fire to her family farm, killing her abusive father. With his fiery ghost at her heels, Polly and her young brother seek refuge in a local Shaker community – the City of Hope. Polly has much to hide from this mysterious society of believers, with the local fire inspector on her trail and the ever-present daemons from her past. But when they hail her a ‘Visionist’, the first their community has known, she is subject to overwhelming scrutiny. Despite being fiercely protected by a young Shaker sister named Charity, a girl who has never known the outside world yet will stake her very soul on Polly’s purity, Polly finds herself in danger from forces both sides of the City’s walls. And in a world where faith and fear coexist, safety has a price…

The Visionist is an interesting historical story, but it’s not an easy read due to its slow pace and some of the content. It offers a peek at an enigmatic religious movement, but also tells the sad story of Polly as she escapes her abusive father, only to be separated from her mother and younger brother. At the same time, a fire investigator is on her trail and this adds to the pile of secrets on which the book is built. Overall, the tone is fairly flat and detached (despite three narrative voices) – there’s little or outward emotion joy, except perhaps when the Shakers are caught up in ecstatic worship. Such a tone suits the book in some ways, but I left me feeling more of a voyeur than fully involved in the story. I did feel compelled to find out more about the Shakers afterwards, which led to some interesting discussions afterwards. Reviews of The Visionist are mixed, probably because it’s hard to place in a genre, but also because it’s not really a mainstream book. One to make your own mind up about.

Available from good bookstores. My copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster (Simon & Schuster UK RRP $32.99).