“Is the bond between mother and daughter unbreakable, even by death?
Julia Severn is a student at an elite institute for psychics. Her mentor, the legendary Madame Ackermann, afflicted by jealousy, refuses to pass the torch to her young disciple. Instead, she subjects Julia to the humiliation of reliving her mother’s suicide when Julia was an infant. As the two lock horns, and Julia gains power, Madame Ackermann launches a desperate psychic attack that leaves Julia the victim of a crippling ailment.
Julia retreats to a faceless job in Manhattan. But others have noted Julia’s emerging gifts, and soon she’s recruited to track down an elusive missing person—a controversial artist who might have a connection to her mother. As Julia sifts through ghosts and astral clues, everything she thought she knew of her mother is called into question, and she discovers that her ability to know the minds of others—including her own—goes far deeper than she ever imagined.”
Thoughts: Imagine a world where psychic behavior is not only believed but admired and encouraged. There is formal training for those who show the aptitude, and those with the most talent are considered the rock stars of the industry. This is the world in which the curtains first open on to Julia Severn’s life in Heidi Julavits’ The Vanishers. Readers must quickly adapt to a story where everything is not as it appears on the surface. It can be confusing, difficult, horrifying, and at the same time intriguing.
Julia struggles to find her place in this world of psychics. She is a student of immense talent but afraid to let her talents outshine those of her mentor, Madame Ackermann. Once Madame Ackermann discovers the truth, the psychic attacks begin, and they are not pretty. Ms. Julavits spares no description of the physical ailments from which Julia suffers. It can be a bit much for the more squeamish readers.
The physical afflictions are an interesting counterpart to the mental investigations Julia eventually undertakes. Much of the novel occurs in Julia’s mind, as she attempts to uncover the truth about her mother and what lead to her suicide as well as the mystery behind Dominique Varga. It is just as convoluted as one would imagine. Ghosts, astral clues, and other mystical mind games become a bit too much at times, as a reader searches for answers among the abstract. The truth, when it is finally uncovered, requires a reader’s patience and a better part of one’s imagination to understand and accept.
The Vanishers is a book that most readers will not enjoy, and through which even the most advanced readers will struggle to fully comprehend. It is not the cheeriest of novels and definitely redefines the traditional mother/daughter relationship. At the same time, there is something about it that keeps a reader’s interest in spite of the need to suspend belief. Ms. Julavits must be commended for taking a chance on her subject matter, even if it will not be appreciated by popular culture.
Acknowledgments: Mine. All mine.