Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Microreview [literary fiction]: The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen

Jakobsen, Mette. The Vanishing Act [W.W. Norton/Vintage, 2012]

I've mentioned before that books I unambiguously love are often the hardest to review. That's certainly true of The Vanishing Act, but in this case it's compounded by the fact that it's a lyrical book with a subtle plot that precludes easy summary and is, furthermore, told from the perspective of a child--with all the temporal and logical shifts of focus that entails. But here goes...

The Vanishing Act centers on Minou, a twelve-year old girl who lives with her father on a small island of unclear location (though most likely somewhere in Europe) at an indeterminate time. There are references to "the war," but it is unclear whether this is the First or Second World War, another past European conflict or some future or imagined conflagration. It feels more like the past than the future, awash as it is in sepia tones, but some sort of post-apocalyptic scenario isn't completely out of the question either. In any event, the body of a dead boy washes up on shore; Papa decides to lay him to rest in the room once used by Minou's mother, an enigmatic and clearly troubled woman who disappeared during a storm, but whose disappearance may relate more directly to magic and her relationship to, Boxman, an illusionist who lives on the other side of the island.

Strange things begin to happen that problematize the distinction between the real and the magical--or, perhaps, merely reflect the intuition of a child who has not yet developed the rigid distinctions emblematic of a modern adult's rationality. Jakobsen explores the duality of the seen and the unseen cleverly, embodied in the two rivals for Minou's mother's affections--the philosopher Papa, who seeks truth in Descartes; and Boxman, whose illusions may be easily explained or they may not--and in the boy lying in repose, dead but somehow able to draw out memory and truth from Minou, Papa and Boxman, all of whom struggle with the loss of a women they deeply loved.

The Vanishing Act is a quiet yet powerful, melancholic yet ultimately bittersweet novel that reminds me why I leave to comforting genre ghetto to read literary fiction. The fact is that this book challenged me in ways long-form science fiction and fantasy only rarely care to. Yet it is still, in a very real sense, a work of fantasy--the magic realist side of fantasy whose practitioners can pretend they don't write fantasy, to be sure, but fantasy nonetheless. Jakobsen smartly leaves it up to us to decide just how fantastic the book really is, whether it presents a world where the unreal becomes real, or if it is only Minou who perceives reality in different terms from our own--as a way of coping with the pain her mother's absence engenders. . 

 In a bizarre twist, it also turns out that Jakobsen is a former Danish Olympic swimmer, which means my favorite new author and favorite actors in my favorite TV show (Timothy Olyphant in Justified) were both once competitive swimmers. I don't know what that means, but it must mean something.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for smartly treading the line between fantastic and mimetic fiction.

Penalties: None.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.