I’ve wanted to give Heidi Julavits a try for sometime so when the publisher offered me a review copy of her newest, The Vanishers, I wasn’t able to resist. I had no idea what to expect and what I found was weird and smart and sometimes funny.
The book opens at The Workshop, a college for psychics in New Hampshire. I was immediately disoriented. Was I supposed to take this seriously? Was this a satire? It wasn’t long before I understood that I was to take the whole psychic thing at face value, accept that it was real and not a source of irony or farce.
The story is told by Julia Severn, marked as gifted and taken under the wing of The Workshop’s Queen Bee, Madame Ackerman. Julia is given the job of being Madame Ackerman’s secretary, to record all the things she says during her daily psychic regressions. Except, to Julia’s distress, Madame Ackerman doesn’t regress at all but falls asleep. When Madame Ackerman wakes up she wants to know from Julia what she said during her regression so, at a loss and trying to protect Madame Ackerman, she starts making stuff up. But when Madame Ackerman is asked to locate a lost film shot by pornographer/feminist performance artist Dominique Varga, Julia is the one who has the regression and locates the film while Madame Ackerman sleeps. But Julia passes it off as Madame Ackerman who eventually figures out what has been happening and launches a psychic attack against Julia.
Suddenly ill with all kinds of symptoms and no doctor diagnosable physical cause, Julia takes a leave from the Workshop and lands drugged and defeated in New York working as a showroom model for a flooring company where she sits at a desk in the window and pretends she is speaking in Arabic on the phone to upscale foreign clients.
Strange enough for you yet? From here it gets even stranger with Julia being hired by Colophon, an academic searching for Varga. She is sent to Vienna to the Goergen, a spa for those recovering from psychic attacks and women getting plastic surgery. And what a tangled web gets woven.
About the title. There is lots of vanishing going on in this book, from deaths real and faked to people who choose to vanish in order to start new lives as someone else. And there is Julia whose identity seems to have vanished because she is always open to psychic intrusions by other people. The vanishing that takes center stage is the suicide of Julia’s mother who killed herself when Julia was only a month old. Julia doesn’t think the absence of her mother has made a difference in her life, but really, it has shaped her so completely she can’t even see that her psychic abilities are one of its results. Along with the search for Dominque Varga, the book also becomes a search for Julia’s mother and a kind of coming-of-age story for Julia.
Everything is more or less resolved at the end of the book, the main plot points at any rate. We are still left with questions: Was Madame Ackerman really psychically attacking Julia or the other way around? Was Julia’s dead mother attacking her psychically? Though we don’t know for certain what is clear is that these psychic attacks serve both a real and metaphorical function in the book especially when it comes to mother-daughter and mother-daughter-like relationships; the damage women do to themselves and each other and the lengths we go to to try and pick up the pieces and make sense of it all.
As odd as The Vanishers is I still very much enjoyed it. It is a smart book that expects the reader to be smart too. Now that I have had a taste of Julavits, I will gladly read her other books as well. When I will get to them I don’t know, but I do know they will be a treat.