Alice came in the day too. She was there when Eleanor's father shut the curtains in the evening, hovering in the fabric. Earlier, Eleanor had found her lying under the sofa, her face cupped in chubby hands. She was using all Eleanor's secret places. Alice was spying without taking turns, which was not fair. She was hiding really well, for only Eleanor had found her. [loc. 502]One hot summer's day in 1968, two nine-year old girls -- Alice and Eleanor -- are playing together in a deserted village, somewhere on the Sussex coast. Eleanor has been forbidden to play there: it's dangerous, her father says.
Alice and Eleanor aren't friends, but their parents think they should be. Eleanor's vivid imagination is her secret weapon against Alice's prim nature and nasty taunts, but when their game of hide-and-seek concludes with Alice's disappearance, she is going to have to tell the truth about where they were playing. Everyone thinks Eleanor must know what happened to Alice, but she doesn't ... at least, she doesn't think she does.
Fast-forward to the late 1990s. Chris lives with her agoraphobic mother in a small London flat. She discovers the story of Alice and Eleanor, and makes contact with Alice's stil-grieving mother Kathleen, who has never quite let go of her daughter. Chris goes to visit Kathleen, on -- by some horrible coincidence --the day when Eleanor's father commits suicide by driving his car into the swimming pool. But where is Eleanor? She's estranged from her family: nobody in the village has seen her for years.
A Kind of Vanishing is a powerful novel about how differently cases of child abduction (and presumed murder) have been treated over the last fifty years. It's a novel about absence and deception. Eleanor's fate was, for me, completely unexpected: the more so because child-Eleanor is such an intricate and credible character, making her way through a world governed by the strange logics of childhood. (Weirdly, her thoughts and behaviours made her seem like an only child, despite having siblings.) Her relationship with her parents -- especially her mother -- is wholly transformed by Alice's disappearance, and her sense of injustice is strong.
Reviewing my notes and highlights, I realise there's a lot of foreshadowing, plenty of clues that I only half-noticed when reading. Thomson definitely has a knack for concealing a plot in plain sight.
Is it worth noting that pretty much all the characters in this novel -- all the characters with agency, with viewpoint -- are female? I think it is.