Set on a remote island, not found on any map, sometime after ‘the war’, The Vanishing Act explores the lives of the island’s few residents through the eyes of Minou, a twelve year old girl, who is waiting patiently for her mother to return a year after her mysterious disappearance. On the anniversary of her mother’s vanishing act, she finds a dead boy washed up on to the shore, and over the next three days, Minou reflects on her life and the lives of her parents and neighbours, in an attempt to make sense of her loss.
Jakobsen uses the tropes of storytelling, philosophy, myth and magic to create what is undoubtedly a well-crafted and skilfully written novel but it felt to me at times to be style over substance – a parable with no discernible message, or possibly too clear a message to be truly engaging.
The few characters in The Vanishing Act are delicately drawn and all are viewed through the eyes of an unworldly twelve year old. Her father Papa, is a would be philosopher, scarred by his experiences in the war and trying to find the Absolute Truth of life through his study of Descartes. Her mother, Mama is a creative, passionate and imaginative woman, clearly feeling stifled by life on the remote and quiet island and painting all the walls of her home with vivid murals.
Another time Mama put a letter in a bottle, sealed it with a cork…and threw it out as far as she could. After five weeks it returned near the fishing spot. The letter said: ‘Help me, I am trapped on an island in the middle of the sea.’
‘Poor woman’, laughed Mama and put the note back in the bottle.
Boxman, the magician is nursing a broken heart in the company of his dog No Name and Priest is literally baking their daily bread while trying to nourish their souls. Clearly Jakobsen is using these characters, none of whom has a name, as symbols of different kinds of truth – logic, creativity, magic and religion – and it is up to Minou to decide where her own truth lies. In her heart she believes her mother is alive, so she uses her fathers beloved logic to prove why this would be so. The arrival of the dead boy brings her face to face with the possibility that her mother has succumbed to the same fate and in trying to write a story for the dead boy, she discovers the truth of her own experience and the secret she has been afraid to face and by doing so finds her own philosophy.
It is in the heart and not in the words – not even in the most beautiful ones – but in the heart, in the skeleton bird pushing against your chest, wanting to fly, that we know for certain who and what we love. That is all we have, and all there is.
Each of the characters in The Vanishing Act is interesting in their own right, but when gathered in the same story, they never seem to transcend the narrow metaphor that has been created for them. they lack depth because they are one-dimensional, which means it is hard to empathise or sympathise with any of them. They are sketches of people, serving a purpose within a tale which contains enough whimsy and magic to make it an appealing read but not necessarily a memorable one. I found it hard to characterize – it reads like a fairy tale for adults, but its message for me was over simplified and ultimately unsatisfying.
It perhaps works best when exploring how Minou comes to terms with the loss of her mother and how that in turn allows her to imagine a life beyond the confines of her beloved island. There are some beautifully written passages (particularly in relation to Papa’s experiences during the war) and some striking images, but the overall effect is of something too delicate to take a real hold.
20 Books of Summer: 1/20
Number Read: 72
Number Remaining: 674