by Lesley Thomson
406 pages, Myriad
Review by Pat Black
When a child goes missing, society flinches. It’s our very worst fears given form, an event that we often see played out in the news. We’re drawn into a horrifying mystery – what happened to the child, who might have been behind the abduction, and what happens to the friends and family left behind. It is this reaction - this flinch - which Lesley Thomson’s A Kind of Vanishing examines.
The story begins in 1968, and follows Eleanor Ramsay, youngest child of local doctor Mark Ramsay and his glamorous wife Isabel. Young Eleanor finds herself landed with a new playmate, Alice. She’s the same age as Eleanor and both sets of parents assume the pair would be good company for each other during the long summer.
But Alice and Eleanor are two very different little girls; Eleanor fanciful and headstrong, Alice organised, proper and perhaps a little stuck up. One afternoon they play hide-and-seek; Alice, perhaps having heard a very old joke, wins handsomely by never being found.
The novel has a mystery at its core, with lots of suspects, but it is not just a puzzle box detective story. Although it never loses sight of the lost girl, it is more concerned with the fall-out that hits the characters, from Eleanor herself – never quite looked upon as innocent from the moment Alice vanishes – through to the next generation, 30 years later.
It’s a great novel for details. I would liken it to raking through an old toy box, perhaps at your grandmother’s house. You’ll turn up treasures; you’ll get some rust caked underneath your fingernails. And perhaps you’ll get jabbed with a sharp edge here and there.
A Kind of Vanishing permeated the world of the child beautifully, never more so than when it looks at the relationship between Eleanor and Alice. I was reminded of an awful little boy from my own childhood, sent downstairs from his grandmother’s house to our flat whenever he came to visit. I just didn’t get on with this boy, possibly sparked by his attempt to steal my prized pea green VW Golf Matchbox car – but my family just couldn’t understand my antipathy to the lad, or why our playtime outdoors would frequently erupt into wrestling matches. Children have a communication barrier with adults which simply can’t be breached; this is something else Thomson gets absolutely right.
This adult ignorance colours the background to the two girls’ obvious dislike for each other, but the true genius of Thomson’s work is in presenting both sides of the story before Alice performs her vanishing trick. From the vantage point of Eleanor, Alice looks dreadful to us; but Thomson switches perspectives rather neatly, and we gain an insight into Alice’s attitude, and a clearer picture of Eleanor’s flaws.
Although it’s a rich, detailed novel, the pace may be a little slow for some, eager for the fast-draw tactics of a normal detective story. But this isn’t a normal detective story. Indeed, it takes rather a while for the story’s true sleuths – a teenager called Chris, on the cusp of university life, and a washed-up journalist with a lingering interest in Alice’s unsolved disappearance – to emerge.
A mid-story sleight of hand trick will fool many readers, although I have to confess I guessed its provenance almost from the first. Even so, Thomson’s story choices and the vaulting from perspective to perspective within and without the Ramsay family are incredibly bold ones for any writer to make.
If it all sounds a little too tangled and gothic, be assured: there are no loose ends in this tale. You’ll find out what happened. Everything is bundled together for the reader to inspect, no matter how unpalatable the sight, like toys stuffed into a dilapidated doll’s house.
(Read the interview with author Lesley Thomson here.)