The Vanishing, Sophia Tobin’s third novel, tells the story of a young orphan, Annaleigh, and the isolated house on the Yorkshire Moors where she becomes housekeeper, the shadowy and secretive White Windows owned by Marcus Twentyman and his sister Hester. As this short premise suggests, this is a novel firmly in the Gothic genre. Annaleigh has left her London home under difficult circumstances and is alone; the inhabitants of the local village are uneasy about the house and its owners (referring to both in hushed tones); there are hints at opiate usage and there is a mystery surrounding the fate of the previous housekeeper. From the start, the reader knows that Annaleigh’s attempt at escape from London is not destined to be as easy as she hopes.
Tobin’s writing is very evocative. The moors and the house feel both alive and menacing and the characters of the brother and sister caught in some unpleasantly symbiotic web of existence away from society’s rules are well-drawn. Tobin understands and respects the conventions of the genre and is an accomplished enough writer to ensure neither character nor setting slip into cliché.
The novel is at its most successful in its creation of a gothic world: White Windows and its surroundings are vividly portrayed and the conflict between the needs of the ‘big house’ and the servants/villagers who must meet these despite their reservations feels authentic.
It is perhaps less successful in creating a sense of historical place: the story unfolds during 1814/5 and the timeframe is referenced through clothing and a mention of the Napoleonic Wars but never feels quite anchored. However, given the deliberately claustrophobic nature of the story’s closed world, it is perhaps unfair to expect the outside world to impact on the reader when it certainly does not on the inhabitants of White Windows.
Annaleigh’s coming of age in the story is a hard and troubling one: this is a novel with a darker secret at its heart than the reader may imagine from its opening and it is the dark twist which gives the story its strength. However, The Vanishing, for me, comes with a caveat: I found it very difficult to read the first half of the novel without echoes of Jane Eyre seeping through the pages to the point at which, for this reader, the story began to buckle under the weight. I stuck with it and I am glad I did as the last part adds layers of poignancy to Annaleigh’s story that linger. A lighter hand with the genre would have wooed me far sooner but Annaleigh’s story is not easily forgotten and that makes The Vanishing a very worthwhile read.
Catherine Hokin‘s debut novel, Blood and Roses, brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories – she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine – and blogs monthly for The History Girls.