WE CAN'T HELP BUT JUDGE books by their covers — that's what the covers are for. That of Heidi Julavits's new novel, The Vanishers, is a Technicolor riot of flowers, a quilt of happy girliness all pinks and purples and yellows, and as lovely as it is, it gives a misleading impression of what's inside. The Vanishers is not a story of happy girliness, and its hue is certainly not pink. This is a tale told in greys and ochres; there are a lot of shadows here. In this book, footpaths across a New England college quad don't just meander, they "vivisect the campus," and cameras don't click, they make "little bird-skull-popping sounds." The cover of The Vanishers should probably be pitch black.
At the center of the story is Julia Severn, a gifted pupil at the Workshop, a college for psychics in the small town of Warwick, New Hampshire. Julavits nails this cloistered academic scene perfectly; the Workshop could be any small liberal arts school with professors who feel underappreciated (one suggests a "reverse scholarship system, in which students would be charged for getting poor grades and monopolizing professors whose energies might be more worthily expended on Initiates of Promise," arguing, "talentless people need to learn more, thus they should pay more.") and a small claque of students forming cults around favored professors, most especially Madame Ackermann, with her "mixture of naivete and wiliness, her middle-parted night hair, and Eva Hesse Bavarian élan, her habit during class, of placing a foot on her chair and resting her chin atop a corduroyed knee." Julia admits that all the Workshop students, herself included, "were in some form of love with her."
Julia's infatuation is more complicated than the others'. Madame Ackermann resembles Julia's mother, who committed suicide when Julia was just a baby. Now Julia is fixated on her teacher, a fact Madame Ackermann is well aware of — they're both psychics, after all. Their relationship becomes even more complicated when Julia, a relative novice, intercepts one of Madame Ackermann's "throws" during a psychic parlor game known as SAD: "Spooky Action at a Distance," thus threatening Ackermann's status as the Big Clairvoyant on Campus. Mother figure or not, Madame Ackermann becomes pitted against Julia at a time when she needs help most.
The Vanishers is a quest story: one young woman in search of her missing mother. Despite her extrasensory abilities, Julia has never been able to reach her, a fact which reveals either a lack of skill or a lack of trying. Much of the book is concerned with Julia's ambivalence around this issue. She wants to love her never-known mother, but she wants to hate her for leaving, too. Julia accuses her of feeling "worse for Sylvia Plath than for her two children," and perhaps she does. But it remains a problem. As Julia sets out to solve what at first appears to be an unrelated mystery concerning a missing French feminist artist, she discovers that all roads lead back to her mother: There's no escaping her. It's a journey that takes her from rural New Hampshire to the old-world spas of Austria and to a Lost Film Conference in New York City, where "vanishing films" are screened — last testaments of people who, rather than kill themselves, simply film a goodbye to friends and family and then run away to start new lives. Along the way, Julia meets a series...read more