I picked up The Vanishing Act a few days ago. Someone asked me if it was good, but I told them it was still too soon to say – I was only on page 6. Later I was 50 pages in, and still not sure what I felt. When I was 100 pages in and still reading, I felt it must be good, but was still not certain who it was written for. Then I was 150 pages in and thinking how odd and quirky and charming it was, without really knowing if I would recommend it to anyone. Now I am done, and it is only in the process of writing about it that I am really coming to understand what I read. Perhaps for a book interested in thinking and philosophy, this is a strong compliment.
The closest comparison I have for The Vanishing Act is to novels by Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie’s World, or to the odd but charming Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne. This is a whimsical book with the feel of a fable or parable, with a decent heaping of philosophical content. On a tiny island in the ocean somewhere, after a horrible war, we find Minou (a young girl), her father (a fisherman and a philosopher), Priest (a priest who bakes pretzels and makes origami cranes), Boxman (a magician) and No-Name (a performing dog). Minou’s mother used to live there also, but she disappeared almost a year ago, and Minou is desperately focused on her return. Unlike her father and the other Island’s inhabitants, Minou is certain that her mother has not died, but has simply disappeared. The story begins when Minou and her father find a dead boy on the beach – an oddly comforting discovery for the two of them. The body smells of oranges, and seems to enter their lives with a promise to connect them to what they desire most. For Minou, this is her mother; for her father the philosopher it is to find the fundamental truth from which all others can be drawn. In the end, as they care for the body during the three days it takes for their delivery ship to arrive, Minou and her father both experience closure for her mother’s death. No longer reliving the past, Minou is able to look towards her future and imagine the day when she will leave the island.
Like Waiting for Godo, we don’t know where the characters are, or why, but it does not matter. They have been collected here by the author precisely so she can tell Minou’s story. Reason and imagination, the head and the heart, are in constant tension in this book which pays homage both to philosophy and to art. The writing is lovely, the characters interesting (if not entirely unique) and the mystery surrounding Minou’s mother’s disappearance intriguing enough to keep a reader hooked. I was not a fan of the philosophy – whenever the characters overtly tried to think “rationally” or “philosophically” they ended up closing their minds to the world around them. Some philosophical questions were opened up for the reader, but I think in the battle between philosophy and art, art came on top, when I think it should have been a tie at least.
So while I enjoyedThe Vanishing Act, the question still remains of who is intended to read this novel. My most likely guess is sophisticated young readers and their sophisticated parents. Anyone who likes a healthy dose of whimsy. Voracious readers looking for something unique. The literary-minded. Above all, I am curious to see how others will react, and what page they will be on when they know what this reaction is.