Fiction vanishing

Published on April 15th, 2014


Vanishing by Gerard Woodward

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Blurb: Towards the end of the Second World War a young British artist called Kenneth Brill is arrested for painting landscapes near the old village of Heathrow. The authorities suspect his paintings contain coded information about the new military airfield that is to be built there. Brill protests that he is merely recording a landscape that will soon disappear. Under interrogation a more complicated picture emerges as Brill tells the story of his life – of growing up among the market gardens of The Heath, of his life on the London art scene of the 1930s, and his brief spell as a master at a minor public school. But a darker picture also comes to light, of dealings with the prostitutes and pimps of the Soho underworld, of a break-in at a royal residence and of connections with well-known fascist sympathisers at home and abroad. So who is the real Kenneth Brill? The hero of El Alamein who, as a camouflage officer, helped pull off one of the greatest acts of military deception in the history of warfare, or the lover of Italian futurist painter and fascist sympathiser Arturo Somarco? Why was he expelled from the Slade? And what was he doing at Hillmead, the rural community run by Rufus Quayle, friend of Hitler himself? (Picador, March 2014)

John Harding, The Daily Mail

“The question of who Brill really is and whether he himself knows, mirrors his quest to understand our national identity in a changing world. This is a huge, complex novel, at turns both blackly funny and bleakly moving, driven by truly original characters, rich in obscure pieces of knowledge, evocative of a long-lost, little-known past, and always absorbing – in a word, a masterpiece.”

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Alex Clark, The Guardian

“The novel’s breadth occasionally leads to a touch too much narrative anarchy; where, we wonder, can this new strand possibly be leading us, not least because we suspect that Brill – with his endless scrapes and escapes – is a deeply unreliable narrator. But are his evasions a matter of deliberate concealment or a kind of hiding from himself? By the end of the novel, do we actually know a thing about him? Most of the time, we are quite probably being led up the garden path – but it is a very lush garden and an entertainingly wonky path.”

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Claire Lowdon, The Sunday Times

“The prose has a storybook quality, frequently indulging in cartoon exaggeration. People say swashbuckling things such as: “Old enemies for many years, it was their final act of retribution.” You sense Woodward has set out to write a ripping good yarn: a sort of Boy’s Own version of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. At more than 400 pages, though, it is a lot longer than that novel, and most of the time it feels baggy.”

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Charlie Cooper, The Independent

Sadly, the novel’s attempt to fit so much in is its great weakness. Sad, because, in his moments of gorgeous descriptive writing – be it a bicycle ride down a doomed country lane or capturing the atmosphere of a Libyan city emptied by war, Woodward can be a quite brilliant writer, and there is more than enough here to reward the persevering reader. But like its anti-hero, Vanishing is pulling in too many different directions to settle anywhere, and never quite flowers into the great work it might have been.

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The Scotsman

There isn’t a single scene that doesn’t go on long after it has done what it is supposed to do. In particular, the long accounts of his childhood and his family’s relations with the land of the heath, and the scenes dealing with his camouflage work in the desert war, go on and on. Woodward doesn’t seem to know the value of brevity or economy.

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