Women with psychic powers take center stage in The Vanishers, a paranormal thriller by Heidi Julavits that turns on rivalry between women and the often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters.
Julia Severn's powerful psychic gifts bring her to the Workshop, which is similar in purpose to Hogwarts but has the feel of a small liberal arts college. Academic politics at the Workshop are vicious, and students are under pressure to excel or be crushed beneath the wheels of an uncaring bureaucracy. It is there that Julia meets her idol, the beautiful Madame Ackermann, a teacher of the psychic arts whose power and charisma make her the obsession of all the students. But when Julia ends up on the wrong side of Madame Ackermann, she awakens one morning to discover that her health is falling apart -- that she is in fact under "psychic attack."
With nothing to lose, Julia plunges into the convoluted world of psychic intrigue in an attempt to uncover the reason for Madame Ackermann's vendetta -- and find a way to stop it. Julia soon discovers that the solution to the mystery is dangerously close to home, as it concerns her own mother, who committed suicide when Julia was a baby. Julia's journey takes her across Europe and deep into the past, where she witnesses the betrayal and violence in which her mother was embroiled before Julia was ever born.
Bristling with wicked humor and sharp-edged irony, The Vanishers explores the ways in which the dead can haunt the living and the often painful persistence of memory. It is also ultimately a novel about identity: Julia is vulnerable to attack because she has never known her mother, and therefore never truly known herself. Psychic powers enable Julia to travel into the past, allowing her to take a literal (rather than simply metaphorical) look at the events that preceded her birth. The insights she gleans are crucial to understanding her own origins, as well as her father's torment.
This novel addresses head-on the nearly universal fear of discovering the worst about one's parents. What if your mother was involved in murder, political anarchy or -- perhaps most unsettling of all -- warped pornography? Julia faces the worst, so that the reader can, vicariously, experience the realization of these fears and their implications for one's psyche. By necessity, Julia is not the same person at the conclusion of The Vanishers as she is at its start.
This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness.