THE VANISHING POINT
Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2006
Reviewed by Joy
May and Hannah need to make a fresh start. The sisters are too well known in their English village: May as a wanton, and Hannah for having an unfeminine education. No man they know would marry them. Their doctor father arranges a marriage for May, by mail, to the son of an American tobacco plantation owner. He has to lie about her character to do it, but at least her future will be secure. When their father dies, Hannah can join May. Her beloved sister will see that she is provided for, even though she won’t be able to perform surgery anymore without her father to cover for her.
Lies can go both ways, across an ocean. Years later when Hannah arrives at the “Washbrook Plantation,” she finds a baking scar in the jungle. The plantation house has two rooms, some shacks for indentured servants, an unused tobacco barn. Here May labored like one of the servants. Here, her husband Gabriel tells Hannah, May died along with her baby.
Hannah has nowhere else to go. Besides, she is discovering that Gabriel is as good a match for her as he was a bad one for May. They could be perfectly happy together if only May’s face didn’t keep rising between them.
THE VANISHING POINT is a gothic novel: an isolated young woman is threatened with violence caused by dangerous secrets and deep family conflicts. Most readers will be rapt in the spell of May and Hannah’s experiences and will not be thinking about classification. In any case its genre is barely recognizable, because its setting, a shack in the colonial wilderness, is so atypical of the gothic.
Author Mary Sharratt says that she wanted to explore what would happen to a woman of this time, if she acted as if she had the same rights men did. May, beautiful, flamboyant, blatantly promiscuous, sails across the ocean for the adventure, then attempts to remake her new world to suit her. Sharratt’s portrayal is possibly the most understanding description of a woman like May that I have ever read. Hannah’s intellect makes her the apprentice of her physician father in a time when only a wealthy woman could be forgiven an advanced education – and no woman would be allowed to practice surgery. Sharratt gives Hannah a different fate, one in which her skills have a place after all. The question is, is freedom worth it to May and Hannah after what their achievements cost them?
Mary Sharratt has done extensive research. You may think the word “research” is a death knell to THE VANISHING POINT – it isn’t. Sharratt only uses what facts are needed for us to feel the flow of the lives of Hannah, May and Gabriel. The result is a series of clear, lingering pictures that will surely color our future thoughts about this time in American history.
Above all, THE VANISHING POINT is beautifully written. From the first paragraphs, in which Hannah tells us about vanishing points, we know that we are floating over very deep waters. The combination of poetry, warmth, and sadness creates a captivating atmosphere. It is hard to surface and readjust our thinking to everyday duties.
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