January 2014

Hannah Sheldon-Dean


The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart

Introducing the bibliography to her debut novel, Rachel Urquhart writes: "When I began researching this novel, I knew three things about the Shakers: They forbade sex, they made beautiful furniture, and they shook." Chances are, most readers of The Visionist will be coming from roughly the same background, and foremost among the novel's many intrigues is the rigid, regimented, oddly beautiful 1840s Massachusetts Shaker settlement that Urquhart brings to life. Among the Shakers in The City of Hope, male and female believers must never approach each other; they must meticulously clean every corner of their village to keep the disorder of the Devil at bay; they must worship their holy founder Mother Ann through intricate, unified songs and dances. With close attention to historical detail, Urquhart vividly depicts a community wholly devoted to work and faith, where sewing tidy stitches and building straight fences are simply synonyms for loving God.

And, yes, sex is forbidden: the Shakers gain new Believers through taking in refugees and orphans from The World. One such worldly castoff is Polly Kimball, a fifteen-year-old farm girl whose mother abandons her and her young brother with the Shakers after a suspicious fire destroys their family's home and leaves Polly's brutish father dead. Mourning her family and reeling from the abuse of her previous life, Polly suffers an episode -- is it an extreme instance of post-traumatic stress? A divine trance? -- during her very first Sabbath Day Meeting. Afterward, she is surprised to find herself hailed as a Visionist, one who hears teachings directly from Mother Ann and conveys them to the entire Shaker community.

Polly's struggle to reconcile her new identity with that of her past is The Visionist's central conflict, but Polly isn't alone in questioning her place in the world. Interwoven with Polly's perspective are two others: that of Sister Charity, a girl Polly's age who has lived in The City of Hope since infancy, and that of Simon Pryor, a hired fire inspector for whom the Kimball family comes to represent his own fractured foundation. Together, the three protagonists offer a colorful patchwork of crises of faith, and their compelling plot weaves traditional mystery elements together with profound existential exploration. It's fascinating to watch Pryor piece together the facts of the fire that consumed Polly's past, and equally so to witness Sister Charity sort through the joys and doubts that attend her new friendship with the Visionist. Urquhart's keen sense of imagery and metaphor lends each of their stories an added vibrancy as well; describing Pryor's unscrupulous employer, she writes that he "could identify a loophole in the Shroud of Turin and saw it as his duty to enlarge such careless dropped stitches into opportunities sizable enough to thread through with a draft horse."

At the center of the narrative is Polly herself; it's also she who is its weakest link. While Sister Charity and Pryor feel like fully inhabited individuals, Polly remains something of a cipher throughout the novel. Her thoughts about her situation change quickly and often. Reflecting on her arrival in The City of Hope, Polly thinks: "No matter where she turned, life held its threats... It was no different in The City of Hope, and the unceasing menace exhausted her." Yet, just a few pages later, Polly inexplicably reaches the opposite conclusion: "In this single moment, she feared nothing... She was free." Urquhart leaves the nuances of the shifts in Polly's perspective largely up to the reader's imagination -- only Polly's chapters are written in the third person rather than the first -- and as a result, she often feels distant and difficult to relate to. She could be any fifteen-year-old girl, and while that nondescript character offers an ideal blank slate for the story to play itself out on, Polly never feels as three-dimensional as the rest of The Visionist's world.

The too-convenient changes in Polly also mirror a broader trend within the novel as a whole. Much of the narrative relies heavily on coincidence and easy parallel. Pryor, in particular, explicitly refers to the connection between his life and that of the Kimballs more often than feels organic, in such lines as: "Our fates, [Polly's mother's] and mine, were well and truly wed." The inheritance of Polly's family's land plays a key role in the plot, but that legal tangle hinges on luck as well, with one thinly drawn character appearing only at exactly the right times to offer Pryor long-lost documents and helping hands.

Still, those hints of serendipity, though frustrating from a narrative perspective, also play nicely into the novel's themes of destiny and the complexity of defining one's own faith (or lack thereof). Elder Sister Agnes, a matriarchal Believer in The City of Hope, is perhaps the character that best captures the dualities with which the protagonists struggle. Having been raised outside of Shaker life, Elder Sister Agnes is both of The World and not. Having cared tenderly for Sister Charity from birth, she represents the difficulty of interpersonal love within a society where all individuals must be equal and love can come only from union with every other. And as a devout Shaker, Elder Sister Agnes wishes to believe in Polly's validity as a Visionist, and yet she cannot keep from doubting her. Elder Sister Agnes seems to embody the question that each of the protagonists faces in his or her own way: what does it mean to be faithful and loving? How does one match one's actions to one's beliefs? Sister Charity wonders: "Truth. Faith. Love. Union. How does one lead a life that embraces them all?... I see nothing in a clear light anymore, feel nothing without also suffering the awareness of its opposite."

Despite the particularity of Sister Charity's setting, musings like hers are universal, and likely to ring true for most readers. Polly's beautiful and terrifying Visions loom large, as everyone in The City of Hope -- Polly included -- grapples with defining them: what they are, where they come from, and what they mean. "Did the believers know their own souls?" Polly asks herself. "How mistaken they had been to trust her. How selfish she had been to let them. And yet had not both benefitted from the game?" The answer, in the case of The Visionist, is yes; where the novel's characters and plotting falter, its sensitive engagement with the essential questions of humanity and authenticity remains constant.

The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316228114
352 pages