‘Faith” is hard to define, as the faith we have in our religion is different from the faith we have in our friends or in the good of humanity. These different faiths — and the connections between them — are explored in Rachel Urquhart’s debut novel “The Visionist” (out Tuesday).
Beautifully written in the language and style of the 1840s, “The Visionist” is a fascinating story detailing an often overlooked religious sect: the Shakers.
Set in the Shaker community City of Hope in 1842, the novel is told from three different points of view: Sister Charity, a devout, 15-year-old Shaker; Polly Kimball, a teenager “from the World” seeking refuge after burning down her house to escape her abusive father; and Simon Pryor, a fire inspector hired by a wealthy investor to investigate the fatal blaze.
When Polly begins seeing visions of angels, she is taken for a Visionist, a holy person in the Shaker tradition. However, this new position gives Polly unwanted attention and she fears her secrets will come to light:
“She had exchanged the chaos of her old life for an existence governed by rules, and though it made for certainty where before she had experienced only brutal unpredictability, she could not forget the girl she had been.”
Despite solid grounding in an intriguing environment, “The Visionist” is surprisingly slow. While Urquhart attempts to build suspense by juxtaposing Charity’s crisis of faith with events from “the World,” namely the fire inspector’s dogged pursuit of the truth, she fails to build any real sense of anticipation. Additionally Pryor’s plot line suffers from an overabundance of complications, making his story thin — and unmoving.
The Shakers are a fascinating community and an intriguing chapter in our nation’s history. It is the historical details in “The Visionist,” not the characters, that make this book memorable.