The Vanishing Act, Jen Shieff
The Vanishing Act, by Jen Shieff
Review by Graeme Lay, 19/3/2018
The Vanishing Act is set very firmly in Auckland during the month of March, 1967. The time and setting are distinctive. Those who were here at this time will find many points of recognition in the novel, and so too will those of you who were living in other parts of New Zealand. There will be resonances for most of you because the later 1960s was a time of social and political upheaval which threatened the established, and very conservative social order.
Jen cleverly weaves the background events of the period into her narrative, while in the foreground is a cast of colourful characters. There is Rosemary, the Elam fine arts tutor from England who is fleeing from a family tragedy. There is Rosemary’s close friend, Judith. There is George, a lecherous GP who practises medicine in an era when a doctor was almost above the law. There is George’s old friend Alistair, the registrar at Auckland University, for whom corrupt practices are second nature. There is Judith’s other friend Istvan, a Hungarian refugee, and Allan Maynard, the police inspector who is brought into the novel after the unscrupulous George is murdered. Inventively murdered, I must add. From then on the novel becomes both a ‘whodunnit?’ and a ‘whydunnit?’
It’s an intriguing plot with a lively cast. Readers will experience, as I did, many jolts of memory from the 1960s. Included in The Vanishing Act are several landmarks of Auckland, and many of the cultural emblems of 1967: the movies (Bonnie & Clyde, Blow Up, The Graduate), the TV programmes (Z Cars), the transport (Istvan rides a Vespa), the music (Georgia on My Mind, Billie Holiday) and the preferred alcohol (Even Cold Duck has a walk-on role.) The rapidly festering wound of the Vietnam war is here, and so are the local protests against it. University politics and a rising tide of feminism are skilfully integrated into the plot. It was an exciting era, and one that Jen captures well through her characters and events.
Throughout, the pace of the narrative is brisk: chapters are short and sharp, so that while the plot thickens, it never gets clogged with unnecessary detail. Dialogue – always a vital aspect of fiction writing – is incisive and authentically sounding. The novel comes unashamedly into the genre of ‘popular fiction’, which is infinitely preferable to ‘unpopular fiction’, which attracts far too much critical attention, I believe. We need more popular fiction.
I have no hesitation is recommending The Vanishing Act to book-buyers and readers. It’s highly entertaining and very well produced. In that respect I must add a tribute to Mary Egan and her publishing team. She and her daughters are now a firmly established part of the New Zealand literary scene, and The Vanishing Act is one more contribution to our literature.
The Act of the novel may be vanishing, but the book itself will not do so, I’m sure.
This is Jen Shieff’s second novel, a standalone sequel to The Gentlemen’s Club (Mary Egan Publishing, 2015), which went straight to the Nielsen Indie Top 20 and Weekly Bestseller lists, before being shortlisted for a New Zealand Crime Fiction Ngaio Marsh Award for best first novel
Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Jen taught English literature at high school, owned and managed her own business and then taught management at Auckland University of Technology.
Jen now lives and writes in Turangi, where the bubbling mud of the Volcanic Plateau inspires her on a daily basis to think what might possibly have been just below the surface of apparently ordinary life at different times in New Zealand’s recent past.
The Vanishing Act by Jen Shieff / Mary Egan Publishing / Release date March 2018 / RRP. $30
For a review copy, for interview enquiries and for more information please contact:
Liza Hamilton, hPR 0211053379 firstname.lastname@example.org