There are these magical moments in life when your call of longing is answered by the ideal book. Katherine Stansfield’s debut novel, The Visitor, was such a book for me. Despite having grown up in a picturesque mountain landscape, for most of my life I have felt that I belonged to the sea. In the last few weeks I have been thinking about the influence that sense of affinity with the sea has had on me as a person and a writer. Stansfield spent her childhood in Cornwall and lectures at the University of Wales which overlooks Cardigan Bay. The sea is in her blood and it is one of the main protagonists of her stunning novel.
Meticulously crafted, submerged in wisdom and yearning, The Visitor opens with a gem epigraph, a line by Ruth Bidgood: “When I have pictured a calm sea, there is your boat, waiting.” Set in a fictional fishing village in Cornwall towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the novel tells the story of Pearl, Jack and Nicholas: “The three of them live on the same street, three houses all in line and Pearl’s house in the middle. The three fathers go out in the lifeboat when the flare goes up, and everyone goes to chapel. Each family works together in pilchard season.”
Playing together as children, Pearl, Jack and Nicholas test the boundaries of the friendship that binds them. As young adults they begin to form new allegiances with one another and the community around them. When the pilchards stop coming, the lives of those dependent on the fish for their livelihood change irreversibly. Nicholas is a dreamer ready for adventure and distant shores. The steadfast Jack believes in the continuation of traditions. Pearl knows to whom her heart belongs, but some choices are not hers to make.
Years later, Pearl is forced to abandon her home. Once again everything around her transforms as her small village is flooded by tourists and modernity. At the same time she grapples with an infinitely more tragic loss as she tries to hold on to the precious memories of the love of her life: “What was remembered was true.” Haunted by a past which seems more real than anything else around her, Pearl waits for him to return and sneaks away to revisit the places where they’d experienced flashes of happiness together. On her wanderings she encounters cairns which remind her of all that is lost. She carries a cairn inside her, “weighed down by its stones”. Because of her precarious health, she is not allowed to swim, but the sea is the only thing which restores her to herself: “They were old friends. They had an understanding.”
A constant companion to the human drama unfolding at its shores, the sea continues with its own rhythms. Stansfield is also a poet. Her debut collection Playing House will be published in October. No wonder The Visitor’s prose shimmers with breath-taking beauty.
by Katherine Stansfield
First published in the Cape Times, 29 August 2014, p. 32.