In Defense of the Imaginary: The Vanishing Act, by Mette Jakobsen

Newcomer Mette Jakobsen’s Vanishing Act begins with the discovery of a dead boy, frozen and dusted with snow. An act with the potential for trauma, grief, and a whole range of reaction, is quickly harnessed to its context and changed, gradually and subtly, throughout the 217-page novel. Minou, the boy’s 12-year-old excavator, lives secluded on an island with 3 others. Their habits are repetitive, their lives peaceful and quaint. In the inner lives of each of the island’s inhabitants, however, a war for meaning is waged, and so the dead boy becomes as much a symbol as the island they inhabit.

The Vanishing Act is, on its surface, a study of the popular “reason vs. emotion” dichotomy, embodied by the opposing forces of Minou’s mother (an artist and, later, a circus performer) and father (a philosopher and descendent of Descartes). It is not, as I assumed when I bought it on impulse, a novel about circuses, magic, or mysterious acts (though they each make an appearance). In fact, it just barely hovers on the border of speculative and mainstream literary fiction. It is, however, a defense of the fantastic, of life, of the unknown magics that we face everyday. It erases dichotomy and praises an age in which, for the first time, not having an answer became an answer in itself.

A chronological telling of this novel’s events would be out of hand, and so I’ll leave my summary to this: Minou’s mother disappears one day, and though the adults of the island believe she was torn away by the sea, Minou uses “philosophy” to deduce that she is still alive, and spends the novel convincing her readers of the fact. In the course of this, we find flashbacks to events throughout her childhood and to the fated circus performance that led up to her mother’s disappearance. We meet a quietly eccentric cast of characters—Boxman the magician, No-Name the dog, Papa the philosopher, Mama the artist, and Priest the pretzel-making priest—all of whom have arrived at the island to escape an unknown mainland at an unknown time in history.

The setting, however, both in the form of the island and the historical context, is as vital a character as the others. Jakobsen’s ambiguity about the year of “the war” lends the novel a sort of timelessness wherein we can assume a sundry of historical events or even a post-apocalyptic timeline, though I do think that we can derive the most meaning from the assumption that we are situated at the end of World War II. Papa’s ongoing references to the trauma he experienced in “the cellar” seem to allude to his hiding from Nazi persecution (though nationality, like year, is never explicitly stated). More significantly, however, is the chronology of ideas; Papa’s single-minded quest for answers and his inability to find them is reminiscent of the philosophical quest followed by many Holocaust survivors in the mid-twentieth century, and Minou’s very subjective, modern conclusion at the end of the novel maintains similarities to the Existentialist movement that resulted directly from the traumas of WWII.

Minou, who acts as a battleground for her parents’ beliefs, often narrates with a stark dramatic irony; when using reason as her father taught her, her imagination runs wild, and when she creates art, she does so with an adult-like logic. Her parents similarly thwart the ideas they profess to hold; her father acts on emotion, even in his quest for truth, and her mother is quick to remind him that, logically, there is no proof of his relation to Descartes. Together, the family and their tiny community of friends, grapple with life’s big questions, and fight their battles through words, pictures, nature, and circus magic.

The culminating scene of the novel, wherein the island’s inhabitants put on the circus performance that predicts Mama’s “vanishing act” the next day, contrasts with the final scene in which Minou and her father send the dead boy back to the mainland on a shipping vessel. Imagination and reality are both represented and given credence, and both lead to Minou’s eventual revelation about her mother’s disappearance. Minou’s belief that she is, like her father, a logical philosopher, free of flights of fantasy and the visions of her mother, begin to unravel as she witnesses her mother’s ghost walk the shoreline. The island—a contained idea—begins to pale in comparison to the vast, unfathomable world at large.

Rather than being discouraged by her lack of answers, however, Minou is bolstered by them. The magical adventure story that she has written over the course of the novel reveals that she, as a child unhampered by the traumas and prejudices of adulthood, will enter the world with a mind open to every single possibility. Given the novel’s detached, quietly sorrowful tone, its ending is surprisingly hopeful, and makes it entirely worth the afternoon it will take you to read it. Jakobsen has captured a voice at once mature and innocent, and which reads like a memory hovering just beneath the surface. The Vanishing Act reads as fantasy, defends fantasy, and yet situates its reader firmly in the grit of reality. Like its protagonist, it is a juxtaposition and celebration of difference.

Emily Nordling likes good books, bad TV, and superior tea.


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