Monday, July 18, 2022

Book Review: The Night They Vanished

By Jami Denison

True-crime podcasts and documentaries are all the rage these days, but I’ve never found them particularly enjoyable. While I love domestic thrillers and horror movies, when it comes to true crime, I can’t forget that real people were hurt, are still hurting. That isn’t entertainment for me.

Author Vanessa Savage may feel the same way, as her latest novel, The Night They Vanished, kicks off with a website called The Dark Tourist, “where you can explore the darkest places in Britain, the sites of some of the most notorious crimes the U.K. has ever seen…” When Hanna’s best friend sets her up on a date with Adam, she’s surprised and intrigued by his hobby of dark tourism. But her interest turns to horror when her own family is featured on Adam’s web site. While Hanna has been estranged from her family for 14 years, as far as she knows, they’re alive and well! Is this some kind of bad joke on Adam’s part? But Adam insists he didn’t upload the post about Hanna’s family—he was hacked. And when Hanna goes to find her father, stepmother, and teenage half-sister, they have vanished. Did Adam have something to do with their disappearance? Or has Hanna’s destructive past come back to haunt her?

The Night They Vanished is narrated by two characters—Hanna, in the present, and her sister Sasha, three months earlier. Both points of view are in the first person, and both characters come across very strongly. Hanna is haunted by a secret in the past she refuses to describe, a secret that drove her away from home. And Sasha lives with the consequences of Hanna’s youthful indiscretions, as her father denies her every privilege enjoyed by her peers, even the freedom to walk home from school on her own. As a result, Sasha is bullied and ostracized, leaving her vulnerable to manipulation. Sasha is truly the heart of this novel, and it’s heartbreaking how she tries so hard to please her cruel father, and how she longs for a sister who would care about her. 

Hanna isn’t so easy to know. Caught up in the drama about what happened to her family, wondering the truth about Adam, hiding her secret, and coming face-to-face with her former neighbors who still blame her for said secret, she has so much going on it’s hard to determine who she really is. 

This is a plot-driven book, though, so long scenes of Hanna getting in touch with her feelings weren’t really necessary. Pacing, however, is important for a thriller, and Vanished moves forward at a nice clip, resulting in a satisfying climax.

The reveal about Hanna’s secret wasn’t so satisfying, though. The way she’s treated by her old hometown and her own family made me think she and her old boyfriend were followers of a Charles Manson-like cult leader. Perhaps Savage is making a case that girls and women are often blamed for the mistakes of men, but it made the book feel unbalanced, that the punishment did not fit the crime. Savage doubles down on this by allowing the true villain of the piece to get off scot-free. 

The website, though, is what kicks off this book, and what makes Hanna and Sasha so relatable. Having your worst secrets, your grief, your embarrassment, even your nude pictures circulated on the internet is a nightmare that could happen to any of us.  

Thanks to Grand Central for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Vanessa Savage:

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