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Vanishing by Gerard Woodward, book review: Vividly drawn tale of war, art and sexuality
There are at least three excellent novels contained within the pages of Gerard Woodward's latest work. It is, at once, a gut-wrenching account of being gay at a time – the 1930s – when it was impossible to be gay without tearing yourself in two; an elegy to the lost pastoral landscape which made way for the construction of Heathrow Airport; and a beautifully written account of the Second World War's North Africa campaign.
Into the mix, Woodward throws a portrait of inter-war Soho in all its seedy detail, a sex scandal at a well-to-do public school, a courtroom drama, and a short stay in a pseudo-Fascist commune. It is all rather a lot to take in and, like a meal with too many courses and too many flavours, the end result is indigestion.
We begin with the novel's antihero, struggling artist Kenneth Brill, in the custody of the British army in the latter years of the war. He has been arrested for making detailed paintings of farmland around the hamlet of Heathrow: "a few dirty fields … shortly to become one of the biggest military airbases in Europe".
Brill, who we learn has grown up in this landscape, claims he was only making a record before it vanished forever, but the military authorities accuse him of spying for the Nazis.
What follows is a 500-page striptease of a plot, as Kenneth tells the story of his life and the reader tries to guess whether he is telling the truth or not.
Interweaved with this narrative is an account of his wartime service as a camoufleur – one of a troop of artists called up to con the Germans into bombing dummy armies in the desert.
The entire first half of the novel brings us only as far as Kenneth's acceptance letter to the Slade School of Fine Art. We read of his growing bewilderment with his own sexuality, and also begin to question the quality of his character in the wake of a series of disturbing episodes.
While Woodward's descriptive writing – especially of the lost agricultural landscape of "the Heath" – is rich with colour and bursting with living detail, the plot in this first phase is ponderous and his characters feel oddly remote and thinly drawn.
This changes when the action shifts to London and Brill's coterie of bohemian artists become mixed up with the inhabitants of London's underworld. Life changes for Kenneth, and the plot finally kicks into gear.
As we come to trust Kenneth as narrator, the tragedy of his life comes into focus: expelled from school, then from art school, then fired from his first job because of a series of apparently sinister sexual misdemeanours, we, the reader, see the truth: that all his troubles stem not from his character, but from his knowledge that society has no tolerance for his true, homosexual self. He hides, he evades, he vanishes and loses his self. The symbolism of his becoming an expert in the art of camouflage is obvious.
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 (wheels, road and limbs "one great complex of connectedness") or capturing the atmosphere of a Libyan city emptied by war ("doors slamming all over the city … as though the houses themselves were protesting at their own emptiness, calling out for their owners"), 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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