A budding psychic weighs the potential of revenge against the world-famous medium who betrayed her in The Vanishers, the fourth novel from Believer co-founder (and wife of Flame Alphabet author Ben Marcus) Heidi Julavits. As Julia Severn re-engages her extrasensory powers, Julavits cleverly wields the displays of supernatural trickery around her as strikes in a slow-motion war between Julia and her former mentor.
If the paranormal elements were replaced with some other field of talent, The Vanishers would just be a familiar story about Julia’s search for self after she loses her assumed avenue to success. Madame Ackermann saw enough promise in Julia, a student at a psychic school known as The Workshop, to appoint her as an assistant, but she assaults Julia publicly after catching her engaging in forbidden psychic exploration. When one of Madame’s former clients seeks Julia to help complete an assignment Madame wasn’t able to do, their praise for her talent sways her into accepting the assignment even though instinct tells her not to get involved.
As Julia’s new employers guide her toward using her abilities again, memories of her creepy closeness with Madame bubble up unbidden, underscored by Madame’s resemblance to Julia’s dead mother. This convenient doubling, while invoked too many times, adds insight into Julia’s life before her attack, but also makes Julia more sympathetic than her depressive myopia allows. And Julavits gives readers a rooting interest by suggesting that Julia’s best displays of psychic power are still ahead, and that Madame feared being usurped by her student more than losing her own skills.
Avoiding easy scares, The Vanishers effectively taps into the toxic puddle of a relationship gone sour as a means of expressing how all jealousies and petty battles warp the people in them, not just those marked by interactions with the paranormal. Julia’s efforts to accept herself as a worthy opponent provide tension, and watching her work through increasingly tight situations creates on the suspenseful draw of a chess game. It’s captivating, because no matter how impressive her powers become, they can’t help her defeat her opponent. Recognizing how rivalry still exerts a force on her pushes Julia to become a better medium at the cost of final alienation, but with the promise of restoring her to herself.