First Published: 2011
This is a story about a snow-covered island you won’t find on any map.
It’s the story of a girl, Minou. A year ago, her mother walked out into the rain and never came back.
It’s about a magician and a priest and a dog called No Name. It’s about a father’s endless hunt for the truth.
It’s about a dead boy who listens, and Minou’s search for her mother’s voice.
It’s a story of how even the most isolated places have their own secrets.
It’s a story you will never forget.
I’m still not entirely sure what I think of this book. It’s one of those books that sometimes gets quite patronisingly described as ‘charming’; a short, well-written and introspective ‘coming of age’ novel touching on several big themes, but ultimately has no plot to speak of and the characters remain simplistic.
The narrator, Minou, is twelve (possibly a bit older – acts a lot younger). One year ago her mother disappeared – the titular ‘vanishing act’ – from the small island they live on. A year later the dead body of a young man washes up on shore and Minou starts to recall her childhood, her mothers disappearance, and the events leading up to it. And that’s really about it – Minou thinks and occasionally writes, but nothing actually happens save in the flashbacks and at the end of the book everyone remains in pretty much the same position they were in the beginning.
Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, some of the best stories can be the more introspective ones, but I don’t think, even internally, Minou went through enough to make a very satisfying narrative. Although the reader learns that a lot of Minou’s perceptions of herself from the beginning of the book are wrong (she is not a rational philosopher like her father but a creative dreamer like her mother) I remain unconvinced that Minou herself ever realises this. In fact I might go so far as saying that most of the more interesting themes in the book are the ones that are obvious to the reader but the narrator is almost oblivious to.
Although no time period is ever explicitly identified, the mentions of ‘the war’, which Minou knows very little about and learns even less about over the story, indicate that Minou’s parents are both survivors of World War II. Perhaps the exact time period was left vague to emphasise the timeless nature of war and allow the reader to imagine it as any war they wanted. It is the after effects of war – Minou’s father’s determined search to find the ultimate philosophical ‘truth’ to cope with his experiences, her mother’s love for beauty and colour and feeling rather than thinking – that are important rather than the war itself. But, with references to Minou’s father ‘hiding in a cupboard’, I think it would have been a lot more meaningful if the conflict had been identified. As it is it’s just ‘the war’ and never intrudes for too long on Minou’s thoughts – though serves to make her father the most interesting and tragic character of the novel.
What Minou is more interested in is recounting the little domestic scenes between her parents and the small events of the island (it’s so small the only other two inhabitants are a priest who loves to bake and a heartbroken stage magician who makes a living making boxes for sawing women in half) that reveal every other character, and particularly her mother, to be tired and ultimately tiresome stereotypes. Maybe I’m meant to find the ‘quirky impulsive woman who wants to be free’ an interesting concept, but Minou’s mother reads too much like the character in a children’s book to really read any further depth into. She’s quirky and beautiful and feminine and always wears dresses and loves to paint. She has wild red hair and rowed to the island on a boat accompanied by a golden bowl and a pet peacock! Everything about her just serves to make her seem ever more like a fairytale archetype and less like a real character. Which, when the story revolves around her, is kind of unfortunate.
But the book never aims at realistic character study. Minou’s narration is always the narration of a child – who sees the world in simple (and sometimes simplistic) ways and does not always understand what it is she is observing. In that way the characterisation of her mother makes sense; the way Minou sees her is just as influenced by her father’s stories of her as her own memories. At least it at the beginning. As Minou examines her childhood more does emerge but, however well written the book and however well mastered the childhood-perfective, the mother’s fate still follows an ultimately clichéd trajectory.
Ultimately The Vanishing Act is good, for what it is. It’s a quick one day sort of read that is an enjoyable way to spend a single afternoon, but nothing really all that special. The characters, seen through the eyes of a child, remain simplistic and unexplored, and not very much happens. But the writing, if you enjoy naive child narrators, is good and there are interesting themes in there too, if you’re prepared to dig down a bit more than Minou ever does.
So three stars. I liked it, and I can think of a few people I might recommend it to, but that’s about it. A short breather sort of book to fit in nicely between either more heavy going or more action-packed novels.