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Heidi Julavits
The Vanishers
Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-52381-3
Publication Date: 03-13-2012
286 Pages; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 04-07-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Fantasy  Horror   General Fiction

For every gift, there is a curse. Humans have the gift of storytelling, of crafting meaning and intent from a series of random events; and to counter this talent, we have self-doubt, the ability to undermine and question our every action and belief. Are we worthy of those who admire us? Are we worthy of our own self-admiration? We tell ourselves a story about who we are and how we came to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It's a solid story. But we're our own perfect interrogators. We can ask all the right questions to undo our own sense of self.

Julia Servern is much more talented than she lets on, at least as Heidi Julavits' novel 'The Vanishers' begins. Julia is portrays herself as the underachiever at The Workshop, an elite school for psychics that somehow most of us (who are not psychics) have never heard about. But in spite of Julia's low self-esteem, she's been chosen by the Workshop's fearsome headmistress, Madame Ackerman, to take dictation, including psychic dictation as Ackerman knocks herself out to find the work of a missing, unsavory artist. Success is achieved, but Julia finds herself on the outs, then on the run from a psychic attack. The cure proves to be every bit as dangerous as the disease as Julia finds more questions than answers. The facts she discovers reveal toxic emotions and the love that kills. Julavits has created a psychic trap for the reader, a ripping yarn with raw and powerful emotions.

Julia tells the story in 'The Vanishers,' so character and prose are mashed into one seamless, utterly entertaining whole. She's a smart storyteller and an unreliable narrator with a great voice. 'The Vanishers' is easy to read and superbly, smartly well-written. For all the serious and intense emotions that ultimately drive the novel, 'The Vanishers' is really very, very funny, as Julia and Julavits send up academia, the art world, recovery centers and everything else in the novel's path. The ease with which the prose is read masks the skill with which it was written; only in retrospect will readers realize that every word is perfectly placed, and just how much we feel Julia's character through the writing. Because Julia is such a smart and observant character, her portraits of those around her are entertaining, insightful and often flawed in a manner that reader can spot even when the storyteller cannot.

'The Vanishers' is a novel about secret societies, and secret societies within secret societies, like a series of Russian nesting dolls. The conceit behind the title involves a service that will help you disappear from this world without killing yourself, a sort of death-free version of suicide. You have the option of leaving behind a filmed last message to your loved ones (or those you know if you were indeed without love). There are secret wellness centers, and a whole network of psychics with varying abilities who walk among us unseen, or at least unseen by the network news. Julavits creates this world with a terse precision that makes it seem real. It's a great pleasure to read her world building efforts within the world we inhabit.

Using her well-designed elements of the fantastic, Julavits turns pulse-pounding narrative elements into poignant plot points to engage the reader on all levels. For a novel set entirely in the world we think we know, Julavits has put a lot of work into her invention, and the surprise of discovering what is "real" seems untoppable until Julavits manages to do just that by making the emotional impact match the danger level. And there's the twist that catches us all; that the gift of our feeling, caring life is the curse to counterbalance it. Emotional pain, like its physical counterpart, exists to warn us of danger. Those whom we dare to love are perfectly poised to become our most effective assassins.

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