13 February 2013

The Vanishers (Heidi Julavits)

A cursory Google search indicates that most reviews of Heidi Julavits's delightful psychic-detective story The Vanishers focus on its themes of female competition--the protagonist, Julia Severn, finds herself under astral attack by her former mentor, Madame Ackerman, even as she investigates the disappearance of a provocative French filmmaker, Dominique Varga, who may have know Julia's mother--a victim of suicide when Julia was an infant. These motifs having been well covered elsewhere, then, I'd like to add my own two-cent accolade for Julavits's wry yet sympathetic portrayal of chronic illness, an experience woefully resonant for me. (Honestly, it would explain so much if I'd been psychically assaulted for the last year or so. But I think that's called "living in New York.")

From the prologue:
And so it goes, your body's hurtle along a failure trajectory that no doctor can explain. There is only the numb leg, the searing esophagus, the face--its frostbit complexion, its vinegar stare--you no longer recognize as your own.
I'm overworked and need to take more vitamins, you'll tell yourself. Maybe I'm allergic to wheat or my new car. Maybe I'm depressed, or not enough in love anymore with my life, my spouse, my self. You'll schedule beach vacations or more time at the gym, but no matter how many times you dunk yourself in oceans or flush the liquid content of your body through your pores, you can't escape the suspicion that a cancer drifts through your anatomy, that it will soon metastasize to your personality, that it is only a matter of time before it breaches the cellular firewall encircling your soul.
Julia's struggle towards health, physical and psychic, shuttles between hope and despair (like the traveler's "rapidly alternating . . . states of ravenous hunger and . . . queasy disgust") and the incomprehensible yet absolutely true simultaneous experience of both. Ultimately, she seems to conclude that "this is what being a person means, to be sickened by an illness known as you."

It is such a joy to read an entire novel of writing like this, so lithe and elastic. I've never understood why the popular page-turner has such short sentences--to keep me reading, I need these long waves of phrasing, undulating under the precise control of punctuation. Julavits can also toss off a one-liner--my favorite here is "'You look very convalescent apres-ski'". She's an author I'll be reading more of, that's for sure. And how fortuitous to have ended up reading three gorgeously written books by women in a row! (Beginning with Holly Goddard Jones's The Next Time You See Me, followed up by Lydia Millet's Ghost Lights, which I'll write up soon.) Great job, ladies!

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