The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits – Book Review

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits
Published by Doubleday Books, an imprint of Random House

From the publisher:

Is the bond between mother and daughter unbreakable, even by death?

Julia Severn is a student at an elite institute for psychics. Her mentor, the legendary Madame Ackermann, afflicted by jealousy, refuses to pass the torch to her young disciple. Instead, she subjects Julia to the humiliation of reliving her mother’s suicide when Julia was an infant. As the two lock horns, and Julia gains power, Madame Ackermann launches a desperate psychic attack that leaves Julia the victim of a crippling ailment.

Julia retreats to a faceless job in Manhattan. But others have noted Julia’s emerging gifts, and soon she’s recruited to track down an elusive missing person—a controversial artist who might have a connection to her mother. As Julia sifts through ghosts and astral clues, everything she thought she knew of her mother is called into question, and she discovers that her ability to know the minds of others—including her own—goes far deeper than she ever imagined.

From plot to characterization to prose, Julavits has a mesmerizing writing style, something that makes her particularly well suited to telling the story of a woman with psychic aptitude slowly regaining her talent. The Vanishers is intriguing, unexpected, and difficult to put down. Julia is woefully unaware of the direction her life is taking, in a manner that would be obnoxious in most protagonists.

Given my repeated failures to intuit when danger awaited me, it should come as no surprise to learn: I went. -p. 219

Perhaps it is because of the completely unexpected plot Julavits has introduced. Readers are not often asked to accept a world populated by characters with genuine psychic abilities, particularly in literary fiction. Somehow Julavits manages to put her reader squarely in the realm of suspended disbelief, enough so that even Julia’s nearly aimless wanderings do not grate. Or, perhaps it is the themes of female relationships and the tension and love that can ensue and even coexist that universalizes the story Julavits is telling about Julia’s life, even as most of her specific  experiences do not resemble those of the average reader in the least.

The Vanishers is at times jarring and, as such, is certainly not for everyone, particularly with the threads of suicide, radical surgery, and people going missing on purpose running through it. However, for those willing to approach it, Julavits has magic to work. Highly recommended. 

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The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead by Paul Elwork – Book Review

The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead by Paul Elwork
Published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, an imprint of Penguin

In the long, slow days during the summer of 1925, Emily Stewart discovered what to a thirteen year old is an amazing talent: she can crack her ankle in such a way as to throw the sound, a talent best put to use in her twin brother Michael’s room in the middle of the night. Michael, unlike Emily, sees a purpose for this parlor trick beyond making things go bump in the night, and so he gathers a group of local children, telling them stories of the family’s cousin Regina, who died decades earlier as a young girl on the property and pretending that Emily can summon and converse with her, with Regina answering in knocks. News of Emily’s alleged talent quickly spreads, and soon reaches local adults. In a time when the wounds of World War I still lay so heavy on American hearts – particularly the wounds caused by young men who failed to return – the belief that Emily can speak for the dead catches on much more quickly and with far more people than she could have even imagined.

The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead is interesting not only as a tale of spiritualism in the early parts of the 2oth century and how it took hold, but also as a story of how seemingly harmless events can get out of hand so quickly. Emily’s spirit knockings started first as an innocent trick on her brother, then as a slightly less innocent trick on the somewhat obnoxious boy who liked to follow around after Michael. Before she knew it, she was adding other spirits to her repertoire, beyond simply Regina. Some of the spirits were her and Michael’s concoctions, but sometimes she was feigning to speak for people’s actual lost loved ones, and it was not too long before she felt that she was in over her head. As for the spiritualism, Elwork’s novel laid out quite clearly how and why it would have been so easy for people in the 20s to get caught up in such things, I don’t think I’ve ever fully taken into account the impact World War I had on the national psyche in this area – incidentally, I think I am somewhat more sensitive to it than I would otherwise have been, being as I am in the middle of the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, which deals with life in England between the wars.

Elwork has written a very interesting novel that has left me with many things to ponder about human nature – particularly when grief is endemic – and the way the world works. The connection between grieving and spiritualism is one I now want to continue to explore in other books, and I hope to see more, similarly thought-provoking novels from Elwork in the future.


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