The Vanishing Point
by Mary Sharratt
Published by Mariner Books
384 pages, 2006
Where the Wild Things Are
Reviewed by David Abrams
In her latest novel, The Vanishing Point, Mary Sharratt transports readers back to Colonial America, a land filled with impenetrable forests, grim foreboding and long distances between neighbors. It is the wilderness within the hearts of the characters, however, that proves to be the most dangerous.
As she did in her previous book, The Real Minerva, Sharratt brings the hair-trigger emotions of her characters to the surface as they play out the drama against the backdrop of history. In The Real Minerva, it was 1920s Minnesota; here, we're taken to Maryland in the 1690s.
Hannah Powers arrives on the wild, rocky shores of the Maryland colony, hoping to join her older sister May and her new husband Gabriel. May had left Hannah and their father, a surgeon, back in England several years earlier in the wake of scandal. We learn that May "had started with the boys" when she was 15. "In the beginning, she had tried to be a decent girl, contenting herself with kisses, sweet words, and secret glances. But her hunger mounted..."
Before she can bring disgrace on the family name, May's father sends her to America as a sort of mail-order bride for a distant cousin. Years later, Hannah arrives and makes her way upriver to the isolated homestead where May and Gabriel had settled. But before she can drag her trunks up the riverbank, she's greeted with terrible news from Gabriel: two years earlier, May died in childbirth and the farm has fallen into ruins.
At first, Gabriel is hostile and guarded, carrying a load of bitterness toward the rest of the world, but it's not long before Hannah penetrates his stoic, buckskinned exterior. A few chapters later, they're embracing and tumbling around in animal skins on the cabin floor. Though it's predictable and a bit quick to develop, the romance between Gabriel and Hannah is genuinely felt by the reader. As the novel progresses, it becomes the source of tension that keeps the pages turning: even as Hannah falls in love with her brother-in-law, she increasingly suspects him of murdering her sister.
Sharratt limits most of the novel's action to the isolated cabin, forcing us to feel the loneliness, the danger of the wilderness, the gritty way of life. The sex is dirty (in the unwashed sense), yet erotic; the mystery of the missing woman constantly haunts the edge of the pages, and the violence of mankind is always just beyond the threshold.
The strength of the novel lies in its details: food, clothing, gardening, medicinal herbs and ocean crossings are well-researched, a description of surgery to remove a kidney stone is especially vivid. I've no idea how accurate Sharratt's descriptions are, but the important thing is she convinces me and integrates the research seamlessly into the story.
The Vanishing Point has the hallmarks of a successful historical novel -- it's engaging, authentic in its period details, sexy when it needs to be, and is populated with characters the reader cares about. Despite its length, The Vanishing Point quickly becomes a page-turner and its flaws -- primarily clunky dialogue which teeters between Restoration England and 20th-century TV soap opera -- are easy to forgive once you get caught up in the story.
Hannah grows stronger as the story moves along (it's no coincidence that her last name is Powers). Sharratt has endowed her with the trademarks of a spirited, educated woman who can read and write in English and Latin, knows algebra, geometry, botany and astronomy, and wields a surgeon's knife with precision.
Years before the American Revolution, Hannah takes her own stance of independence. She's a formidable, and sometimes threatening, match for Gabriel as she plays detective in the mystery of her sister's death. The solution, not fully revealed until the book's closing pages, is as surprising as it is satisfying.
In her afterword, Sharratt tells us the seeds of The Vanishing Point were planted 20 years ago when she took part in a University of Minnesota seminar called "The Making of the Female Character (1450-1650)." Sharratt wondered, "What would happen to a late-seventeenth-century woman who was determined to carve out her own destiny and who demanded the same liberties, both social and sexual, as a man?" She more than adequately answers this question in the pages of The Vanishing Point. | August 2006
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.