The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits | Book review
A thrilling tale of psychics sidesteps pulp to examine intimacy and rivalry between women.
The premise of Believer coeditor Heidi Julavits’s latest novel, The Vanishers, is a little far-out: A master psychic, past the peak of her powers, works to undermine her bright, young protégé through a campaign of unchecked parapsychological aggression. It’s the sort of subject that, at best, seems the province of Stephen King. At worst, it conjures images of Uri Geller and Miss Cleo engaged in a cage match. But it quickly becomes clear that Julavits is less interested in pulpy, paranormal storytelling than in crafting a tale laden with intrigue that’s also an insightful look into the nature of relationships between women.
At a prestigious New Hampshire institute for psychics, talented student Julia Severn is under the mentorship of the revered Madame Ackermann. Julia looks to her teacher as a role model, but when it becomes apparent that the pupil’s gifts outshine those of her teacher, Julia is ostracized from the program and becomes afflicted with inexplicable physical ailments. Once a French film scholar recruits Julia to locate a provocative filmmaker with a mysterious connection to Julia’s late mother, the story devolves into a fever dream of quasi-sadistic mind games, visitations and what may or may not be snuff films posing as high art.
Throughout the novel, Julavits uses her characters to deftly explore the intimacy and rivalry that often characterize female relationships. While the action occasionally becomes confused in the maze of so many narrative threads, Julavits’s prose is never less than gripping, and often quite funny, throughout what proves to be a swift, thrilling and spellbindingly strange tale.