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The Vanishers

April 4, 2013 by Reader's Connection

The VanishersMy friend Don has dreams that let him know what his friends are thinking. My own dream life has been rich and illuminating, jetting around through time and space, but I’m not aware of having received many messages from friends.

When I glanced at the jacket notes on Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers, and saw that it had to do with an “institute of psychics,” I figured that I’d be on familiar ground. The novel would be populated with sensitives like Don.

But our narrator Julia Severn is in another league.

[At] the age of three . . . I was diagnosed by a pediatric neurologist with electromagnetic hyperactivity, which explained why our household appliances–toasters, radios, computers–were perpetually blowing fuses or known to spontaneously, in my presence, fail. By the time I was eight I could darken street lamps by walking beneath them . . . By the time I was twelve . . . I knew when I saw a woman crying on the street that she’d had her purse stolen on the train. I knew by the backs of a bank teller’s hands that his wife had recently suffered a miscarriage.

Are there really people like this? Does Julavits believe that there are? The novel is like a Ross Macdonald mystery, with people forever being driven by traumas out of the past, except that Julia keeps slipping back into that past–I mean actually going there, not just daydreaming about it; and some of the suspicious characters she bumps into turn out to be spirits of the dead; and no Macdonald character, however vicious, could have pulled off a “psychic attack.”

This is a dark tale–Julia, whose mother committed suicide, likes to quote Sylvia Plath–but I enjoyed its humor, its confusion, its skepticism about human nature and identity. A downloadable e-book version is available, if Julia’s funny way with electrons doesn’t have you spooked.

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