By Rachel Urquhart
Simon & Schuster UK, £12.99 hardcover
If, like author Rachel Urquhart, you knew three things about the Shakers (“They forbade sex, they made beautiful furniture, and they shook.”) then you will get an education from her debut novel, The Visionist. Set in Massachusetts farming country during the middle of the 19th century, it is full of colourful detail about life in this unusual sect, from descriptions of their ecstatic dances, to explanations about the procedures employed to ensure that the sexes never mingled. (It seems not to have occurred to them that same sex attractions might blossom – at least that’s never discussed in the novel.)
Urquhart employs a triple narration: Sister Charity is a lifelong member of the sect, having been deposited on one of their perfectly crafted doorsteps as an infant; Polly Kimball, 15, is in flight from an abusive father, and the visionist of the title; and Simon Procter is a young man unhappily working as an arson investigator. Charity and Simon speak in first person while Polly’s chapters are rendered in the third person.
Despite the fresh and fascinating details of Shaker life – which, to Urquhart’s credit, are deployed only in service to the story, rather than as a way of showing off her erudition – I had a strange sense of déjà-vu. There were few genuine surprises as the novel unfolded.
Yet it raises intriguing questions for thoughtful minds to mull. Polly’s visions, for example, are not symptomatic of religious epiphany, as the Shakers believe, but an extension of the dissociative behaviour she develops to survive her father’s nightly rapes. As he pushes into her, she pushes past, into a realm of angels and wonder. It’s hard not to draw parallels with other religious mystics, whose visions generally arrived after periods of emotional or physical stress.
Polly’s life is certainly stressful. She and her brain-damaged younger brother have been left with the Shakers – indentured to them, in fact – by her desperate mother, after fire destroys the family farm they were in the process of fleeing. Though it was an accident, Polly feels responsible for the conflagration, and lives with the dual fear that her devil of a father survived it — and that he did not, making her a killer.
Her other-worldly presence at the Shaker’s City of Hope invigorates the community, who believe her to be channeling the voice of their founding mother. This bathes their non-stop industry in a golden glow, spurring them on. Sister Charity becomes utterly enamoured with Polly, while the group’s leader, Elder Sister Agnes, remains skeptical. In the end, they are both wrong about a young woman whose survival instincts lead her into moral quandaries. While I found Polly a bit “straight from central casting”, as literary heroines go, I was far more disturbed by the restrictive morality of the Shakers. They come across as anti-individualists who remain highly suspicious of newcomers even as they absorb them into the flock. Woe betide those who transgress! Shakers have no middle ground and no fluidity.
This creepy depiction of Shakers makes The Visionist feel like a timely warning against religious fanaticism of any description. What a shame that a group renowned for their beautiful crafts, the purity of their herbal remedies, and the fecundity of their farms could find no room for the messiness – of emotion, behaviour, and circumstance – that makes everyday life both maddening and enjoyable.