The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (W.W. Norton and Company; 224 pages; $23.95).
On the first page of Mette Jakobsen’s stylish novel The Vanishing Act, a dead boy washes up on a small snow-covered island “so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps.” He is about fourteen or fifteen and, curiously, a fragrant odor emanates from his corpse. He smells of oranges.
Minou, the twelve-year-old girl who found him, desperately wants to tell her mother about her discovery. But she cannot. Her mother has disappeared.
Jakobsen writes, “It had been a year since the circus. And a year since Mama walked out into the cold morning with a large black umbrella.” Mama had performed a magic trick with the Boxman, a magician who lives on the island. Shortly after the “vanishing act,” she went missing.
Everyone on the island thinks Mama is dead. “Priest had found her shoe washed up on the beach after she disappeared. Papa never spoke of the day they put it, salt-stained and minus its heel, in an old shoebox and buried it.” Minou believes her mother is still alive. “She is not dead, Papa,” she vehemently tells her father, “she is coming back.”
Minou’s father values reason above all things: he proudly counts the philosopher Descartes as an ancestor. He thinks his wife, in her heels and umbrella, tumbled over a cliff and perished. Then, the tide carried her body out to sea. In time, perhaps her body, too, will return just as her shoe did. “Things lost to the ocean always return.”
Seeking answers, Papa puts the corpse in his wife’s bedroom. He opens the windows and allows the corpse to freeze. He has three days with the boy, who he says resembles a young Descartes, three days before the supply boat returns for the body.
Minou searches for answers of her own. She seeks out the Boxman, “who used to work in a circus, but after arriving on the island he began to make boxes for magicians. The kind in which women are sawn in half.” Boxman has an interesting theory. The love of his life, Cosmina, used to help him in his performances. “After they had added a vanishing act to their performance, Cosmina began to talk about things she had never mentioned before.” She seemed unhappy. Eventually, Cosmina left him to find herself. She wanted to “study the stars from the foothills of the Himalayas.” The Boxman does not think Mama left the island to pursue her dreams, though; he thinks she is dead.
Minou may carry an important piece of the puzzle. She recalls seeing a “reflection in a mirror.” She is uncertain exactly what she saw and reminds herself “that Boxman could conjure up doves, rabbits, roses and coins and that nothing was unusual in his barn.” But the image of “Mama’s lips, her closed eyes, and Boxman’s hand, his red-stone ring against her pale breast” will not go away.
Is Minou recalling an actual event or is the mercury in the lighthouse bulb affecting her sanity? After all, she sleeps in the lighthouse every night. “Lighthouse keepers have gone mad” living there on the island, seeing “things rising out of the sea: strange creatures, pirate ships, goats, pigs, all sorts of scary things.” At times, Minou’s recollections of her mother paint Mama as possibly unstable, leading me to wonder if she committed suicide. Of the island, Mama said, “This is a terrible, terrible place, Minou.” No one, Mama believed, “can live on this island and stay sane.”
In the end, what really happened to Mama and what happened to the dead boy are unsolved mysteries. I was disappointed.
While the setting is strongly rendered in The Vanishing Act, Jakobsen’s characters need more fleshing out. For example, Minou’s mother’s past was mysterious, too mysterious really. Her arrival on the island with a peacock in tow and the “war” both Mama and Papa lived through were too vague. Was it World War II? Why did Papa spend the “entire war hiding amongst onions and carrots in a small root cellar the size of a cupboard”? Then again, since the story is told from the perspective of Minou, the reader only knows what Minou knows. Other characters, particularly the Boxman, could have been expounded on.
Jakobsen does a fine job tackling such themes as philosophy and fantasy. Papa urges Minou to see the big picture and to search for absolute truth; her mother always pressed her daughter to use her imagination, advising Minou “don’t think so much.” The entire story is really a dance with reason and truth and fantasy and imagination dueling. At times, the dance can be beautiful, but this reviewer was left wanting more.
This novel feels much shorter than its 224 pages. I was able to finish the book in one sitting. It actually feels more like a short story than a full-length novel, though. In fact, I believe it would have made for a great short story. As a novel, I have to say it falls short, despite its stylish qualities and its lyricism.