Review of A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thomson

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This offering plopped through my letterbox courtesy of my mother, who after reading the book was driven to share the experience so immediately ordered a copy for me. Would I also enjoy it?

i249.fsSummer 1968: the day Senator Robert Kennedy is shot, two nine-year-old girls are playing hide and seek in the ruins of a deserted village. When it is Eleanor’s turn to hide, Alice disappears.

That is the blurb. Congratulations to Myriad Editions for not including a single spoiler, while still intriguing us with the snappy backcover blurb and atmospheric cover.

Thomson immediately plunges into the world of young girls, depicting first Eleanor’s rich interior landscape and then allowing us to access to Alice’s carefully modulated world, where her doting parents watch her every move. Thomson paints an exquisite picture of each girls’ fragilities, their aspirations and pin-sharp awareness of adult expectations. She beautifully inhabits the terrible, wonderful world of childhood – and the girls’ growing antipathy towards each other. One a noisy, rebellious tomboy living in a household where the adults only occasionally pay attention to their three children, while the other is the heart of her parents’ aspirations and already knows she needs to be neat and pretty to succeed. Neither girl trusts or like the other as they are forced to play together – until that disastrous game of hide and seek.

Most thrillers focus on the investigation. The terrible and growing fears of the adults frantically searching for a young girl; the policemen and women looking for a victim and perpetrator; the feverish publicity surrounding the event. Let’s face it, if you are looking for narrative tension, that storyline has it in spades. But after setting up the events leading up to the disappearance in cinematic detail – Thomson slides right away from all that drama and instead jumps forward thirty years.  I’ll be honest – this was the point where the book nearly went flying across the room. Without divulging any spoilers, I plain couldn’t believe in the plot twist I was being asked to consider as it was just too unbelievable. However, I needn’t have worried – Thomson is a master storyteller and far too sharp and intelligent to lead the tale up such a cul-de-sac. Several plot twists later, I realised what had happened and that I was in entirely safe hands.

This book forces us to consider the consequences when a small child just disappears. It is poignantly sad, but at no time does Thomson ease up on the forward momentum. She continues pulling us into an examination of two families blighted by Alice’s loss, also managing to write movingly and convincingly from the viewpoint of Alice’s mother, still waiting for some kind of closure thirty years, later. Until the final denouement, which completely ties up this story with a satisfying conclusion.

Her prose is full of acute observations of the main characters in the story, so each one of the protagonists bounces off the page in cinematic detail, as does the setting of the large, rambling house.  While she writes from inside the skin of her main characters, Thomson also pulls right outside the story to drop in details that don’t belong in limited omniscience. The sudden contrast is jarring, but also highlights the sense of other events moving along outside the bubble of this tragedy. So I think she gets away with breaking that particular set of rules. Overall, this is a masterful, disturbing book and engrossed me from the moment I opened the first page and didn’t let go until the end.

Track it down. My hunch is that it is a Marmite book – people will either love or loathe it. But whatever your view, I’m guessing you won’t forget it in a hurry.
10/10

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