The Vanishing Act
Near the beginning of Mette Jakobsen’s debut novel “The Vanishing Act” ( W.W. Norton, 2012), Minou, the story’s 12 year old narrator tells the reader “You might not believe my story. You might read it as a fairytale, a fable straight out of my imagination.”
Despite what Minou says, this quiet, slim novel is very much a fable, a tale of love, loss, and aching loneliness. Minou, her father; a kind, mad Priest; a magician named Boxman; and a dog called No Name live on an island “so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps.” One year earlier, her mother walked out into the cold morning with her umbrella and a turtle and disappeared from their lives. While everyone else on the island has given up hope of finding Minou’s mother, the girl is convinced that she is alive, off on an exciting adventure from which she will soon return.
Jakobsen throws the reader into Minou’s world with the novel’s opening sentence: “It was snowing the morning I found the dead boy.”
Minou, and her father carry the frozen boy to their house, laying the body out on the mother’s empty bed for three days until the delivery boat could come to pick him up. The boy, Minou is sure, holds the secret to her mother’s disappearance, and she confides in him, a silent confessor.
So, too, does her father, a philosopher who believes that he is a descendent of Descartes. Logic and reason, in his mind, is the key to finding the ultimate truth—a belief that Minou has adopted and fervently hopes will help her untangle the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance. In flashbacks, we learn more about her mother, an artist who arrived on the island with just one red suitcase filled with “five dresses, eight jars of paint, two brushes, and a white enamel clock that didn’t work,” as well as a peacock nestled in a golden bowl. Both Minou’s mother and father were scarred by a war that, although unnamed, seems very much like World War II.
The other characters in this sparse narrative are equally enigmatic. There is Priest, who performs Tai-Chi like exercises every morning, bakes pretzels that no one wants to eat, and sends out origami animals during his sermons to Minou and No Name. The Boxman, a retired magician, now makes the boxes the magicians use when sawing women in half. All are a part of the story of the disappearance of Minou’s mother.
Jakobsen’s writing is lovely and captivating. After reading this book, you may find yourself revisiting Minou on her island “so tiny that it can’t be found on any maps.”