10 May 2012

Sylvia Plath in The Vanishers

On 29 March, this blog mentioned a new novel that features "people who are obsessed with Sylvia Plath." Naturally my interest was piqued. The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits asks, to quote from the promotional page on Random House (Doubleday imprints) website, "Is the bond between mother and daughter unbreakable, even by death?" To continue an unoriginal review of the book, "Julia Severn is a student at an elite institute for psychics. Her mentor, the legendary Madame Ackermann, afflicted by jealousy, refuses to pass the torch to her young disciple. Instead, she subjects Julia to the humiliation of reliving her mother's suicide when Julia was an infant. As the two lock horns, and Julia gains power, Madame Ackermann launches a desperate psychic attack that leaves Julia the victim of a crippling ailment."

It is a good book and a relatively quick read. To say it is thought-provoking might be tongue in cheek. I kept wondering if such a thing as psychic attacks is in fact possible. If there is, please, to quote Tom Petty, "don't do me like that."

There are of course Plath references throughout the book. I was impatient to find the first instance of direct mention, and had to wait 71 whole pages! Then they came with some regularly on pages 83 [obliquely], 88, 89, 131, 143, 215, 246, 248, 256, and 263.

In the novel, Julia's step-mother Blanche introduces her to Plath. Blanche"insisted" that she and Julia "memorize Plath's Ariel; the poems, she said, might help me understand why my mother had done what she'd done [killed herself]" (71).

Plath is used in the novel in several ways. There are the poems that are quoted, such as lines from "The Applicant," "Death & Co.," "Daddy," and The Bell Jar; but it is "Death & Co." and the suicide that are most frequently referred to. On page 88, I think, is the best Plath reference and that is to photographs of Plath. Julia Severn says, "no matter how many photographs I'd seen of her, I had no idea what she looked like. Each photograph undermined the believability of the others, as though she'd been, even while alive, unwilling to commit to her own face" (89). This is something I have often felt about photographs of Sylvia Plath, that is it hard to reconcile one from the other as the light, the angle, the photographer each was able to bring out a different expression, and therefore capture a different Sylvia Plath from one moment to the next.

In addition to the Plathian references, one of Julia's acquaintances in the novel is called Alwyn: and the similarity to Ted Hughes' sister, Olwyn, is unmistakable.

1 comment :

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

A friend sent me the link to the NYTimes review of this book, laughing at the psychic named Julia/Plath connection. If I can ever get away from my work for a bit of fun reading, I will check it out.

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