Fresh Meat: Vanishing by Gerard Woodward

Vanishing by Gerard Woodward is a historical mystery set in the years leading up to WWII where an artist is found painting a landscape of a new airport, and his motives are questioned (available May 15, 2015).

Near the end of WWII, British Lieutenant Kenneth Brill is arrested. His crime? Painting the landscape around Heathrow Village, where he grew up. The official story is that the village is going to be plowed under and a military airfield will be put in its place. Brill insists he is only painting the village for posterity, to protect the memory of his childhood home before it disappears forever. The trial goes forward anyway and Brill is forced to tell his story – but is he everything he claims to be?

On paper, Brill is a camouflage officer, one of a few men designated to hide Allied troop movement from the enemy. As such, he was a hero of the battle at El Alamein, Egypt. He studied art at Slade. He is married with a son. These things are documented. But as Brill tells his life story to Davies, his trial lawyer, a much more complex picture emerges. A picture of a world as transient as Brill himself. Stories of expulsions, violent encounters, homosexuality, and relationships with fascists are told.  

Vanishing by Booker Prize nominated novelist Gerard Woodward is a thorough novel of intrigue covering one of the shakiest times in history. Brill’s life covers the aftermath of WWI, travels through his formative years during the world’s great depression, and converges during WWII. Throughout it all, Woodward manages to illustrate everything that has vanished, not just from Brill’s life, but from our own lives and understanding.

Brill’s home is Heathrow Village – which is now Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world. As an artist, he wishes to capture his hometown, to hold a piece of it before it is changed. Originally, Heathrow was designated for a military airfield but the land, the foundations of the buildings, and the farms were all dug up or buried. This effectively erased the whole area from history.

Woodward seems bent on making the area real to us again. His descriptions are detailed and meticulous. There are detailed accounts of farming habits and evolution. But it’s not without humor. Manure, for example, is the currency of the village when he’s growing up. When Brill’s father finds a way to effectively utilize human waste instead of the traditional ways, the neighbors get feisty – attacking Brill’s home with poo.

“Kenneth, could you be a good boy and get a spade? I appear to have fallen victim to a terrible prank.”

The voice came from what I at first took to be the tasseled and rucked corner of a Persian rug poking out of the muck, but which turned out to be my mother, lying flat on her back on the hall floor, covered up to her shoulders in mud, only it wasn’t mud, as I could now see, but manure. It seemed that a pile of the stuff had been placed against the front door during the night, piled as high as the porch would allow. When my mother had opened the door that morning, she had unlocked a small avalanche, which had knocked her flat on her back and consumed her up to the chest. She had been three-quarters buried alive.

There’s nothing quite like manure, and piles of it stoically taken on the chin, for a joke.

Kenneth Brill’s life is a series of comings and goings, arrivals and departures, appearances and vanishings. The narrative is first person and told in an unreliable fashion – making the story itself something at risk of vanishing. As he speaks to Davies, the story jumps from his childhood, to his experiences in Africa, to his life in London as a student artist.  We are given glimpses of his relationships, with both men and women. But what is to be believed? The reader is being told everything in the same fashion that Brill confesses to his interviewers. The character even calls his own words into question himself.

“And what did that experience teach you, Lieutenant Brill?” [Davies asks]

“Well, it taught me that people are jolly, gullible, and will believe anything you tell them, so long as there is the slightest air of authority about you. For me, in the pub, it was simply the fact of my apparent confidence in doing what I was doing that gave me the authority. In other cases, a peaked cap, a bit of ribbon on the shoulder, that’s all it takes.”

“Because these are recognized ways of real authority signaling itself.”

“Of course, but how do you know there’s anything behind the signal, that the signal isn’t an empty sign and that there is nothing behind it?”

Vanishing makes the reader question what is tangible and what is ephemeral. As Brill points out, “What seemed to be the most useful role for camouflage in the desert was not so much the concealment of what existed, but the display of that which didn’t exist.” In other words, sometimes to protect the truth, you have to lie – perfect language for a spy…or someone guilty of something else? Woodward plays with the novel’s language, with the novel’s structure, and makes the reader wonder what to believe. And, in the end, maybe we believe it all.

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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.

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