The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was an archaeologist. This realization hit me around 1976 or so, when King Tut’s tomb artifacts were on their second tour of the United States. I think I saw the exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1976 or 1977, though I can’t remember exactly. Given the Tut-mania of the time, it wasn’t a particularly original career choice and I never truly took it seriously. Besides, my fascination was equal parts romanticism (gold, discovery) and revulsion (mummies, dead things).
Still, when I graduated from college — without a degree in archaeology — I decided to travel a bit, and the first place I went was Egypt. That trip was fascinating for so many reasons, but a notable one was that it was my first time in a third-world country. I saw Tut’s treasure again in the dusty, antiquated Egyptian Museum in Cairo, along with the accumulation from thousands of years of Pharaonic rule. I was a bit shocked at the old-fashioned display cases and the way some of the artifacts were piled higgledy-piggledy. I remember one enormous crocodile mummy that was collecting dust on top of a display case. I could have easily reached up and plucked out a tooth — if there had been any left to pluck (I clearly wasn’t the first one to observe the opportunity). I visited the Valley of the Kings, where Howard Carter made his discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922, and crawled around in several other tombs. Tombs are wickedly hot and unpleasant places — good for the dead, not so much for the living, except perhaps for snakes, scorpions, and tomb “doormen” who collect baksheesh to open gates and occasionally turn the tomb lights out on tourists for a quick scare.
In some ways, my trip cured me of Egyptmania, but widened my archaeological and historical interests. I read graffiti from Napoleon’s army and generations of other visitors on the extant roof of a temple from the reign of Cleopatra, which was just as fascinating as the temple itself. I also went to Greece and Italy, full of their own wonders from antiquity. The trip cemented my armchair archaeologist status.
So how could I resist a fictional retelling of the discovery of Tut’s tomb when it hit my Kindle daily deal? The Visitors by Sally Beauman is based on the historic search for and discovery of Tut’s tomb by Howard Carter under the patronage of Lord Carnarvon. Much of this story is very well know, even if you’ve only watched the Discovery channel, and Beauman tells it splendidly. She frames the tale of discovery in the ruminations of an old woman who intersected the social circles of the Carnarvon family, Howard Carter, and other real-life archaeologists and European socialites who were prodding Egypt’s sands for collectibles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The old woman, Lucy, was motherless and 11 years old at the time. She traveled to Egypt under the care of a kindly spinster to recover from typhus in the dry heat (as one did in those days) and take in the sights. Lucy befriends the children of real-life Egyptologists and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter, so Beauman is able to tell us about the discovery from Lucy’s viewpoint as she interacts with the real historical characters. Lucy also harbors a secret about the discovery that drives the narrative — she knows that Carter and Carnarvon entered the tomb secretly, in advance of the official “wonderful things” opening, and pilfered goods for their personal collections (also likely true).
Parts of this book are terrific, particularly the sections when Lucy is in Egypt and she’s giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the characters and events surrounding the discovery. It’s a bit like Downton Abbey goes Egyptian. But the narrative stalls when Lucy is back in England with her father and stepmother. Her stepmother, Nicola, is also an example of some of the uneven character development in the book. Beauman spends a lot of time convincing the reader that Nicola is a gold-digger who does not mean well toward Lucy. I kept waiting for Nicola to do something truly awful to Lucy, and Lucy — wisely — dislikes her intensely. A sudden shift in their relationship occurs, and Lucy not only begins to trust Nicola, but also begins to love her, too. It was unconvincing and confusing to me.
I also thought the book ran long. At nearly 550 pages, it could have easily lost 100-150 pages, particularly the parts that take place in England. But this type of easy-to-read historical fiction is a palate cleanser for me. I used to read mystery novels as my grapefruit sorbet, but a thick historical novel about archaeology? Doesn’t get any better.