There is little more disappointing for a reader, I think, than getting really excited about a book and then being rather let down by it. This is made all the more annoying when the reason that the book lets you down is you and your high expectations of it. This sadly was the case with Mette Jakobsen’s debut novel ‘The Vanishing Act’, which whilst I didn’t love I can imagine a lot of you might and so I am still sharing my thoughts on it. Though after Peter Stothard’s recent thoughts on blogging I have been a bit nervous about popping this post up after being vocal on why I think blogging and bloggers book thoughts are important. But anyway here goes…
‘The Vanishing Act’ opens in a slightly macabre way, when a young twelve year old girl called Minou finds the body of a dead boy on the beach of the snow covered and isolated island which she lives on. As Minou helps her father to look after the body until the next time sailors arrive, we learn that Minou and her father are both recovering from, and coming to terms with, Minou’s mothers own disappearance. This all happened sometime prior when a circus came to the island at the suggestion of one of the other inhabitants, a magician named simply ‘Boxman’. The appearance of the dead boy and disappearance of a very much living mother supply Minou with two mysteries and also make her look at life, and with her father’s obsession with philosophy she is asking some big questions.
The heart of ‘The Vanishing Act’ seemed to me to be the subject of all that is philosophical in life. A big ask for any reader and one that interestingly Mette Jakobsen does do rather well, if occasionally you feel like you are being bashed over the head with all the philosophy she knows and has researched. Because the characters are simply known by ‘Mama’, ‘Papa’, ‘Boxman’ or ‘Priest’ (even the dog is called ‘No Name’) the author is giving you blank canvases to put your thoughts and feelings upon. It felt like one of those ‘self discovery through fiction’ books which were all the rage in the 1990’s. But in a way, because of that, it means the narrator is never really drawn fully either, and in this case with Minou’s situation it needed that for me.
Child narrators are tricky at the best of times, they divide people, they can either be too naive or they can come across as too precocious. Minou herself oddly never really came fully formed for me and whilst she was neither too naive nor too worldly-wise she just seemed a little non-existent even though I was meant to be in her head. I found I started to drift off mentally on occasion and so had to re-read but even when I did I found it hard to care.
So with those apparent issues what was it that kept me reading? Well, two things. Firstly I was really intrigued by what had happened to Minou’s mother and how the boy had ended up on the island, I won’t spoil this book but expect more questions raised that necessarily answered. Yet even in this fairly slim novel the philosophy would come barging down suddenly and the mystery and magic I think Mette could have created so well was broken up by it. I ended up feeling like a stranger remote on the island when I should have been living and breathing Minou’s life and questions about it. The icy remote distance of the island seemed to reflect my feelings to the book and I wanted more warmth. Which leads to the second reason I kept reading on, sometimes Jakobsen’s writing is utterly stunning.
“Papa always said that the war was still inside him. Sometimes I thought I could feel it when I held his hand. He had spent the entire war hiding amongst onions and carrots in a small root cellar the size of a cupboard. But when I wanted to hear more about the cellar Papa would say, ‘You are far too young, my girl. Later.’
I asked Mama if she had felt the war in Papa’s hand when he had reached out and helped her safely to the shore.
‘Yes, little one,’ she answered and looked out towards the sea. ‘It runs in me as well.’
This of course begs the question can you read a book simply because its beautifully written (see Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Strangers Child’) and while I did with this book because it felt like some really strong set pieces adrift in a quest to make me look at philosophy I didn’t get the reward I was hoping for or the story because it never was just a story. It is this very aspect of the book that makes me think lots of people will really love it. Maybe I simply read it at the wrong time, in the wrong frame of mind or with the wrong expectations? That is my philosophy on why I didn’t like it as much as I believed I really would. A bit of a shame for me, but hopefully an interesting read for others. Dan of DogEarDiscs certainly loved it, as did the judges for the 2012 Commonwealth Prize; I am slightly envious they did as I should have really.
Has anyone else read this and if so what did you think? Have any of you read other books like this where its fiction but clearly trying to point out who you are and why? I am thinking of ‘The Alchemist’ and ‘The Clandestine Prophecy’ etc.