I should just take the Friday off these posts. Cuz I haven’t posted one on Friday in 3 weeks. Ah well.
You probably haven’t heard of Heidi Julavits, and that’s totally okay. She swims in a very specific literary pool (she co-edits The Believer, which you probably haven’t heard of either). Her new novel, The Vanishers, is her 4th and (in my opinion) her best, but you may never have seen or heard of the first three.
If you have read any of her previous novels, you might have hated them.
It’s not that Julavits is a bad writer. Quite the contrary. But her books can be quite deceiving. Her second novel, The Effect of Living Backwards, had an airplane hijacking. Her third, The Uses of Enchantment, had a disappearance. They involve plot devices that make you think “thriller” but her books aren’t thrillers at all. They are weird existential exercises that often leave you wondering what just happened.
The Vanishers doesn’t really break from this mold, but it feels like more of a cohesive whole than her previous novels. So it’s probably a good intro for someone new to Julavits’ work. (Also, the cover is gorgeous. So there’s that.)
Our protagonist is Julia. At the beginning of the novel she’s a student. Kind of. She’s at a school for psychics. Not like Hogwarts for psychics. But a legitimate educational institution. In the world of the novel, being a psychic is kind of like being a musician or a linguist. You go to school, you study, and if you have enough ability you can become a professional or an academic or something.
Julia is a promising student. She gets a position as an assistant for one of the school’s most prestigious professors, Madame Ackerman. Julia’s powers are on the rise just as Madame Ackerman’s seem to be failing. Julia can “regress,” and find herself in another time and place, able to watch what happens. People can feel threatened by such abilities, but Julia can’t generally control where she goes and what she sees. Nevertheless, working with Madame Ackerman she becomes more and more powerful. Julia finds herself in a strange rivalry that turns into something dangerous.
As tends to be the case in a Julavits novel there are a lot of other threads. There is Alwyn, who enlists Julia to help her in a search that will lead them through Europe. There are the mysterious titular “Vanishers,” people who decide to abandon their lives and identities, leaving behind only a video to explain or not explain their decision. There is Dominique Vargas, a French filmmaker and performance artist who is somehow at the center of everything, as is Julia’s mother, who committed suicide when Julia was just a baby.
The themes here involve female rivalries and mother/daughter relationships, as well as the complexities of identity. The Vanishers will certainly give you something to chew on. It’s an ambitious book and one designed to send your brain in different directions, not one that will wrap itself up in a bow.
If you want something different in your reading, this is a great book to try.
Thanks to Knopf Doubleday and Netgalley for providing me with an e-galley of The Vanishers.