Book review: The Vanishing by Sophia Tobin

Pitched as a must-read for fans of Jane Eyre, Fingersmith and The Miniaturist, The Vanishing sets itself a high bar. Yet, disappointingly, the first half of the novel reads like a rather contrived pastiche of all three. Sophia Tobin's third work opens as servant girl Annaleigh makes the arduous journey from London to Yorkshire, where she is about to become housekeeper for a mysterious master residing in his gothic mansion. Sound familiar? Indeed, as the carriage drops her off on a bleak moor in a storm, forcing her to find some alternative method of transport to her new home, we are at peak Jane Eyre. And once she arrives, transported gallantly to her destination by the attractive and slightly boyband-esque Thomas Digby, the cast of characters is predictably rolled out one by one.

Sophia Tobin PIC: Julia Skupny
Sophia Tobin PIC: Julia Skupny

Marcus Twentyman is Mr Rochester. His sister, Hester, is Marin in The Miniaturist in another guise. We have the gruff, but apparently supportive servants in the form of Jeanne and her husband Sorsby. All fall neatly into their expected roles: Marcus is terrifying and imposing at first, yet strangely compelling for emotionally inexperienced Annaleigh, whose presence appears to soften his hardened heart. Hester is strange and downtrodden and initially brittle and critical – yet gradually shows kindness towards the newcomer, appearing to regard her as a friend and confidante.

To be honest, I was about to give up. I was bored and irritated and I have to admit, dear reader, that if it wasn’t for you, I may well have done so. But then things improved. Characters began to act in surprising and occasionally shocking ways. Strange things occurred. Evil wound its way on to the pages.

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Without giving too much away, Annaleigh’s initial gripes about a strange and hostile house that doesn’t, in the first half of the book, actually appear to be all that strange or hostile, eventually prove to be well founded. I was hooked. Characters who had failed to engage my attention early on gripped me in the latter part of the book with such ferociousness that, once it was finished, I felt bereft.

The Vanishing isn’t perfect. Hopes of a clever twist involving Annaleigh’s guardian, portrait painter Jared, were dashed. If it had been a film, I would have assumed that the actor who played Jared in some early scenes had backed out due to contractual difficulties, so incongruous was the decision to write him out in the second half. Yet Tobin, an antiques specialist-turned-novelist, has created a vivid sense of the period she is writing about which stays with the reader long after the final page.

*The Vanishing by Sophia Tobin, Simon & Schuster, £12.99