Vanishing is an unusual novel, a shaggy-dog story pricked with pathos, charm and humour, as well as an oddball history of Britain during the 30’s and 40’s narrated by a man with an almost unbelievable naivety and lack of awareness.
Kenneth Brill is a man whose life has been marked by various run-ins with authority figures. A artist by training and a decorated soldier known for his work in camouflaging, he is currently incarcerated for creating plans for a new military aerodrome, supposedly hidden in his personal paintings of the local area. Protesting his innocence, he tells Davies, his interviewer, that he is merely a constant victim of circumstance and that the paintings were there to commemorate the area he grew up in. Skeptical of this, Davies bring up a litany of past misdemeanors including expulsion, lewd behaviour as a teacher, breaking into the palace, cavorting with prostitutes and his friendship with some other unsavoury characters. Faced with this, Brill has no choice but to try and explain some twenty years worth of events, meandering between key points in his life in a disjointed and curious way.
Brill is an entirely unreliable narrator, a man prone to digressions and internalizing, and it is only later when he starts to open up to Davies that we start to understand who he is. His stories are often farcical, some with a twinge of surrealism, and they slowly introduce a rich vein of conflicted thoughts and memories as he tries to hide his motives and emotions. A lot of the time you wonder exactly where you are being lead, while his plummy outlook hides his unease with his sexuality and how he thinks society will treat him. Nudity and camouflage are the two states that Brill keeps coming back to, as his transgressions often have nudity at their core and concealment as a way of avoiding dealing with the repercussions. The chapters in his life that he recounts are wide-ranging, from tales of his family farm’s manure struggles to his vivid descriptions of building an elaborate mock railltrack in North Africa during the war, as well as various run-ins with Nazi sympathisers that seem to pass right over his head.
It is a nuanced and charming story with a depth that appears between the fragmented recountings as Brill’s confused desires bubble to the surface. Exactly what he was doing at the airfield and how complicit or even aware he was of his friends actions is left up to the reader. One of the winners of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, Vanishing is an expansive and superb novel about confusion, the truth and all the grey areas in-between.