No 675 The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen


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.

One down.....

One down…..

20 Books of Summer: 1/20

Number Read: 72

Number Remaining: 674

20 books of summer - master image

20 Books of Summer 2015!

20 books of summer - master image

It’s hard to believe a year has passed, but there are hints of a change in the weather here in Ireland and I’ve decided to challenge myself again this year to read my 20 Books of Summer!

Last year I managed a mere 16 ½ books, so hopefully I can beat that record this time round.

When I started trying to decide on my 20 Books, I had an idea. At the start of 746 Books, the aim was to read what I had, save some money by not buying books and clear some space by reading what was in the house. And I have managed to read what I have and save some money but over the last 18 months though, I’ve come to realise that I mostly read on my iPad, so the piles in the house are still there, mocking me.

So, this summer, I will only read physical books. It’s a bit daunting, because it removes the opportunity to read on my phone, but it will be nice to spend some time reconnecting with some real, actual books for a change! Plus, I might have a clear shelf by September!

So, starting from 1 June and running until 4 September, I’m hoping to read 20 actual books. 7 a month, I can do that, right? Like last year I’ve gone for as broad a range of genres and books as I can and like last year I have included a rock star memoir, a trashy 70s classic, and some sneaky short plays, poetry collections and short stories!

Photo: drbimages

Photo: drbimages

I won’t be reading in any particular order and be warned, reviews may be shorter than usual – I’ve still a job and a couple of twins to look after you know!

So, here are my 20 Books of Summer, click on the titles for a link to their Goodreads description:

I’m going to keep a Master post at the start of the blog so you can follow my progress as books get crossed off the list and if anyone feels their reading needs a bit of oomph then why not join me? Just take the Books of Summer image, pick your own 10 or 20 books you’d like to read and link below.  I’d love your support and I’ve provided a 10 Books image in case 20 seems too daunting! I’ll be tweeting my way through the challenge as well using the hastag #20booksofsummer.

10 books

So, any thoughts on my choices? Have you read any of my 20? Any I should start with straight away, or save for later? Any I’m going to regret putting on the list? I’d love to hear what you think.