The Vanishing Act, Jen Shieff
It should come as no surprise that THE VANISHING ACT was a contender in the 2019 Ngaio Marsh Awards, it's a stylish, unusual and most engaging novel. Set in 1960s New Zealand, the land that is now the beacon of so much positive social change, it's a subtle reminder that countries can change for the better. In 1960s New Zealand, society wasn't ready for out and out lesbians, and seemed happy to cover up for all sorts of male misdeeds, including that of two particularly revolting, white, powerful men.
Employing the style and structure of a good old fashioned who-dunnit novel worked particularly well for THE VANISHING ACT. The method sits comfortably within the time period, and it provides a great device for the hero of the piece, Rosemary Cawley, to function within. A woman well used to hiding her sexual preference, and relationship, she's in the perfect position to conduct a low-key, but extremely determined, investigation into the blackmailing and sexual exploitation activities of Doctor George Abercrombie and his friends.
Nicely subtle, the avenging Miss Cawley is a mightily, yet politely, pissed off woman who is not going to take any underhanded crap from the likes of Abercrombie and his mates. Although once the doctor is found murdered, the official investigation, conducted by Inspector Allan Maynard quickly shows that there are plenty more people with reasons to want Doctor Abercrombie gone from this world, and precious few that would like him to have remained.
It did seem to take an age for THE VANISHING ACT to get much forward momentum in the plot, although to be fair, the setup does provide a lot of information about the setting, both in terms of the time, and the attitude towards lesbian relationships in particular. There is also a hefty dose of "men bad" scenarios that might seem a little heavy-handed at first, but then, in this case, most of the male characters (Inspector Maynard aside) are a very unpleasant bunch.
The thing that stays with me the most after reading this novel, however, is the subtle depiction of double standards at play - on the one hand, women's relationships are bad and society must impose rules; on the other hand, any amount of male philandering, financial impropriety, sexual misdeeds, blackmailing and bullying can be ignored.
THE VANISHING ACT is one of those cleverly balanced message novels, that never lurches into preachy territory, using great characters as a way of letting the reader see the unfairness of a situation rather than have it shouted at them every step of the way.
Respectable appearances can hide the blackest of secrets.
"The Vanishing Act" is a spicy tale of intrigue set in 1960s New Zealand, where society’s constraints and the laws of the day made outcasts of lesbians and prostitutes.
Rosemary Cawley is used to hiding. With a penchant for beautiful women, such as gorgeous art tutor Judith Curran, the well-heeled fine arts lecturer knows she must keep the blinds drawn. After all, her love life led to her being banished from London to New Zealand by her ultra-conservative, upper-crust family. She thinks she has it all under control until someone starts to blackmail her, threatening to expose a shameful, dreadful episode in her past.
General practitioner George Abercrombie and university registrar Alistair Dunstan are two old friends bedevilled by their greed for money and sex. Surreptitious photographs of women undressing, stolen money hidden in a floor safe – where will it end? In walks Rosemary. Will she be the undoing of them both, or will their unwanted attentions and intimidation drive her over the edge?
When Dr Abercrombie is murdered, Inspector Maynard cranks up the heat. Will he solve the case, or will somebody crack first?