First published in September 2012.
Danish-born author Mette Jakobsen’s first book, The Vanishing Act, was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize. The novel is intriguing and powerful from the first sentence: ‘It was snowing the morning I found the dead boy’. With this, we are catapulted into the life of thirteen-year-old Minou, who lives with her father upon a secluded island.
At the outset of the novel, Minou tells us that it has been ‘a year since Mama walked out into the cold morning rain with a large black umbrella. A year since she disappeared…’ On the unnamed island on which the family live, there is little human life about, and it contains just ‘two houses and one church’. ‘The island,’ Minou tells us, ‘is still out there in the ocean; an island so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps’. Whilst everyone else seems to have given up hope of finding Minou’s mother, she herself is convinced that her Mama, ‘beautiful in a way I can’t quite explain’, is still alive and well, off finding adventure in the wider world.
Minou and her father take the dead boy back to their house, insisting that he should ‘stay’ with them until the boat comes from the mainland to pick him up. Minou is convinced that the boy is ‘the special thing’ she had been searching for, and both she and her father begin to use him as a kind of confidante, telling him their deepest secrets. ‘There was so much we could tell Mama about the dead boy’, she reasons. Only a handful of other characters people the novel – a former magician named Boxman and his dog No Name, and a priest.
Although we do not meet Minou’s mother in the present day narration, we learn much about her through a series of flashbacks. She is an exuberant character by all accounts, bringing with her just one suitcase to the island which contained ‘five dresses, eight jars of paint, two brushes and a white enamel clock that didn’t work’, as well as a live peacock with whom she had lived through the war.
Minou’s story occurs some time after an unnamed war, which made both her parents move to the island in the hope of enjoying a more quiet and peaceful existence: ‘Papa always said the war was inside him. Sometimes I thought I could feel it when I held his hand’. Jakobsen has included several details which seem to suggest that the Second World War is the one which is spoken of, but the historical period, along with the location of the tiny island, remains unspecified.
Minou’s first person perspective is used throughout. From the start, along with the other characters which people the novel, she seems incredibly realistic, stepping almost entirely from the page and vividly springing to life. She is a lovely character whom we as readers sympathise with immediately. We recognise her occasional bouts of loneliness and the way in which her unfailing hope remains despite the circumstances. Minou is not a run-of-the-mill protagonist, and some of her actions are wonderful and surprising. She begins to write everyday occurrences down in a notebook to show her mother when she returns, creeps out of her bedroom at night to sleep in a lighthouse, and collects raven bones, arranging them and ‘hoping to see something special that Mama might like’.
Jakobsen’s prose is truly breathtaking at times. Her descriptions, particularly those pertaining to the scenery around Minou, are at once beautiful and bleak: ‘the fading night rushed towards us, as if it had just one last chance to make itself felt’, and ‘snowflakes whirled through the window like uninvited guests’. Minou sees herself and her father as ‘two blind explorers’ as they walk ‘through seaweed and dark rocks, through ice and sea moss’. A sense of magic has been woven into the book throughout, and it seems to follow the same vein of novels as Eowyn Ivey’s delightful The Snow Child and Erin Morgenstern’s inventive The Night Circus. The writing style and the general premise of the novel have a wonderful sparkle about them, and are reminiscent of Tove Jansson’s books.
The Vanishing Act is well plotted and exquisitely well written, and is delightful and sad in equal measure. For a debut novel, it is remarkable. The story has been so well imagined and is balanced incredibly well. Minou comes to life before the eyes of the reader, lingering in the memory for a long while after the final pages have been read.