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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust by Laura Smith - book review

The author investigates a writer’s disappearance alongside her own fear of the mundane

The novel chronicles two quests, each involving an effort to find authenticity, autonomy and self-knowledge in other worlds. Getty
The novel chronicles two quests, each involving an effort to find authenticity, autonomy and self-knowledge in other worlds. Getty

The longing for elsewhere is an elemental part of what it means to be human. We have all felt the lure of the unavailable, the appeal of the more glamorous job, the pull of the more beautiful land, the draw of being someone else. And we have each recognised that the forms of escape and improvement promised by these desires are almost always chimaerical.

The truth of the proposition is now so well-worn as to have become a cliché, but it has at times been rendered with permanence and freshness. One thinks most readily here of the Nausicaa episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), in which Leopold Bloom offers the following reflection: “Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”

These are the odysseys on which we are all destined to embark. And it is with such journeys that Laura Smith’s new work, The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust, is in many ways concerned. The book chronicles two quests, each involving an effort to find authenticity, autonomy and self-knowledge in other worlds. The first and least interesting strand of the book concerns the story of Smith herself – specifically, her fear of becoming trapped in a conventional existence. The second deals with the bewitching and mysterious life of Barbara Newall Follett, who spent her early years enraptured by the glamour of wild territories and untamed thought, and who then disappeared at the age of 25. Smith wants to understand both journeys. What drove her to overturn the stable facets – her home, her marriage – of her own life? Why was she so drawn to the example of Follett? And what was the truth of her peculiar disappearance?

Smith pursues these questions by focusing, in alternate chapters, on their respective experiences. We start as she recounts the history of her own horrified fascination with the humdrum activities of others. Growing up in Washington DC, the predictable nature of the evenings – “setting the table, filling water glasses, the sight of my parents’ briefcases in the hall” – would fill her with such “dread”, she would leave the house with her lapdog to turn away from the reality of a day that “had ended exactly as it had the day before” and “would end the exact same way the next day and possibly forever.” Wandering the streets, she peered through windows for signs of days being spent in another way, but found only lives that “appeared to be exactly the same as mine”. From this moment on, what she longed for was extremity and difference: “I would be an explorer of the wilderness, an observer of animals, a connoisseur of cultures, a collector of the unfamiliar.” A settled marriage was out of the question. Until one day, a few years after college, she met P J and marriage seemed natural and right.

Yet these feelings were not to last long. As her marriage progressed, Smith began to worry that she was living in bad faith. Her old fears recrudesced. And she kept returning to the example of Follett, a child prodigy who was treated by her eccentric parents as both a specimen of experiment and curiosity, and a being on whom to bestow great love and instruction.

By the age of 2, she was fascinated by grammar. By 3-and-a-half, she was composing sentences on her father’s typewriter. By 7 she was writing plays and science fiction stories (complete with invented languages). By the age of 12, she had written and published (with Knopf) a sophisticated, bestselling and critically acclaimed novel called The House Without Windows. And all the while she had been cultivating, with the help of her parents, a passion for nature and the outdoors that bordered on the encyclopaedic and the obsessional. These were the lineaments of freedom.

Two years after the publication of her novel, Follett’s adored father left her mother for a younger woman. She thereafter came to see marriage as a threat to the freedom she had been taught, and had herself learned to cherish.

Surprisingly, she went on to marry herself, enduring for a while a life of relative domesticity. And then, on December 7, 1939, at the age of 25 – armed only with a notebook and US$30 – she walked out of the marital home “and disappeared into the night. She was never seen or heard from again”.

Obsessed by this story, Smith attempts to find out what happened to her. She visits archives at Columbia University, digs in police records, examines municipal papers and trawls through old newspapers. Her initial assumption is that Follett either ran away, committed suicide or was murdered. Her research, however, presents her with an alternative theory. It would be unfair to reveal it here. As she walks us through this insightful and riveting detective work, Smith intersperses her analysis with chapters that detail her own attempts to introduce to her staid life a route to freedom and liberation.

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“Running away not just from home, but from a certain idea of what married life should be”, she and her husband live for a while in South-East Asia and Mexico, and later experiment with an open marriage.

By comparison with the portions of the book devoted to Follett, these episodes often feel melodramatic and clumsily choreographed. The tedium of folding laundry sits uneasily alongside Follett’s story, and it is notable that Smith’s language is usually at its most inattentive (“my stomach dropped”; “I eyed it with suspicion”) when she is discussing her own difficulties.

As an effort to understand the phenomenon of Follett, The Art of Vanishing is intelligent, sensitive and satisfying. But when it comes to taking the measure of her own sensibility, Smith is distant from the elusive self-knowledge of home.

The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust is published by Viking