Vanishing tells the story of Kenneth Brill, a man who seems at times as much of a ‘spectrum’ as his own artist’s palette. It would be wrong to say, however, that Brill is a passive player in the events that unfurl through the book; rather it is his inability to see beyond the individual details of form, moment by moment events, to draw conclusions on the bigger picture that drives events forward in ways he does not foresee. He himself says that
“there were other obstacles, inner walls of which I still have only a vague understanding, that prevented me from achieving a clear perception of my situation.”
Brill grows up in a heath land that is lovingly described for its community and way of life, but it becomes evident early on that this is the very land that the government has commandeered to build the Heathrow aerodrome in support of the war effort. Brill’s commemorative painting of the area around his ancestral home in response to this news leads to his interrogation – which forms the narrative of the book – and court marshal for spying.
The interrogations and court hearing are neatly intertwined with a chronological narrative of Brill’s life, interspersed with his experiences as in North Africa in World War II, as a camouflage expert. The story leads you through uncertainty to finally defining the extent of Brill’s guilt as charged, but it is Brill’s inherent political and sexual innocence that result in events that are less stainless. It is the reader’s awareness of the “inner walls” that help to make Brill less of a frustrating protagonist than he might otherwise be.
The shadow of the War hangs over the book, but Brill remains focused on the details of his own life, and seems unaware, almost dismissive, of the changing light on the political horizon. His time at a Jewish school fails to grant greater consciousness of the bellicose rumblings in Europe. Instead, Brill is happy to unquestioningly accept on a number of occasions the assurances of his friend Somarco, his art school tutor, where experience might have indicated another reponse.
Brill’s political innocence is a counterpart to his sexual naivety, which is illustrated through the recurring image of the nude, which coincides with key moments in the drawn-out process of Brill’s dawning homosexuality. A childhood game sans clothes with a male friend, has both near and further term consequences to the flow of his life, but a first view of a breast inspires only horror that “some terrible illness had swollen her chest”. At art college an impressively endowed male life model stirs a strong response, but drawing female prostitutes does not hinder Brill’s creative flow, until it lands him in trouble from the police. Only the final sexual encounter of the book gives him the satisfaction that he seeks, but with someone who painfully mirrors his prior discomfort in his sexuality.
Brill keeps having to be rescued from the unforeseen consequences of his actions, either by his mother, or his art school friends Learmouth and Samarco, who are prepared to pick up the pieces for his being the unwitting fall guy in shared misdemeanors, but these rescues are not always as they seem.
The ‘vanishing’ of the title refers most obviously to Brill’s being reunited with Learmouth and Samarco to use their artistic training to devise camouflage for the North Africa campaign. More impressionistically, it refers to the impacts of Brill’s inability to see the big picture: things in plain sight have meanings and outcomes to which Brill is simply blind and appear only through the eyes of others.
Any Cop?: Woodward’s writing is fluent, as would be expected from a Booker shortlisted author and TS Eliot Prize shortlisted poet. Vanishing is an enjoyable read, believable through the life-sized scope of the canvas of Brill’s life and the way that Woodward makes credible the chain of events and their unforeseen consequences to his credulous creation.