Posted by: Sarah | August 22, 2006

The Vanishing Point by Mary Sharratt

I should declare an interest here: I know the author, who took over from me as a Reviews Editor for The Historical Novels Review. But I do assure you, gentle reader, that this hasn’t biased my review of her latest novel at all.

The Vanishing Point opens in in rural Gloucestershire in 1689. Twenty-two-year-old May Powers’s amorous recklessness has ruined her marriage prospects and her father has just informed her that he’s packing her off to America to marry a distant cousin she’s never met. Having got a regrettable daughter off his hands, he turns his attention to her younger sister, Hannah, a bright girl whom, having had no son, he has been training in his own discipline of physick. But this is an age when susperstition still rules and Hannah has inevitably imbibed some of this from Joan, the family servant.

In 1692, an alarming letter arrives from May, in which she writes of her own pregnancy and of a fever outbreak which has carried off her father-in-law. Then the sisters’ own father falls ill and, when close to death, makes Hannah promise to go to May. But when Hannah finally reaches May’s home in Maryland, she finds May’s husband Gabriel living alone and isolated. He tells her that May gave birth but the baby died and so did May – of childbed fever. Hannah stays a while and finds herself falling in love with Gabriel. But their love is gradually undermined by Hannah’s growing suspicion that Gabriel hasn’t told her the truth about May. She determines to find out what’s really happened to her sister.

Such a bald summary might lead you to believe that this is a straightforward blend of historical romance, mystery and thriller. It is romantic and it is mysterious and thrilling (especially as the tension builds and twists toward its climax) but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. Mary Sharratt has set her novel in an age that was on a cusp between superstition and enlightenment and she has peopled it with vivid characters who embody these important changes (and the resistance to them), especially May who demands the same freedoms as men and Hannah who has been given a boy’s education without being allowed to use it.

Both these strong-minded sisters kick against the man-made constraints that still oppressed women in those times – May through her own sexual liberation and Hannah through the medical expertise her father has given her only because he hasn’t been graced with a son. It’s a tribute to the depth of Mary Sharratt’s research and her skill as a novelist that these sisters come across as women wholly and convincingly of their own time. And it’s a further tribute that the novel is so cleverly constructed that the reader is enthralled not only by the nail-biting suspense but also by the thoughts the novel provokes about the lives of women, then and now.

Mary Sharratt’s website is here. And here is her blog.


  1. Sounds very good!

  2. Sarah, I’ve just finished reading The Vanishing Point and must write to Mary to tell her how much I enjoyed it. I went to and couldn’t believe the sniffy, negative comments made by Publishers Weekly. Were they reading the same book? It’s very rare these days that I read a book and it’s glued to my hand even when I should be doing other things, and The Vanishing Point gave me one of those rare moments. It’s like the work of Sarah Donati but slightly darker and less verbose. Definitely a 10 out of 10 for me!

  3. I’m willing to give it a try, but the plot summaries and Mary Sharratt’s interview in The Historical Novels Review make it sound like another “21st.-century left-liberal feminist vegetarian Guardian/New York Times/Montreal Gazette reader parachuted into the past” novel. Tell me that it isn’t so.

  4. It isn’t so, Alan. At least it wasn’t for me – and I know exactly what you mean about those feminist parachutists!

    Elizabeth, Those novels are few and far between, aren’t they? – the ones you get so engrossed in you miss your bus stop/train station/next meal/sleep. The Greatest Knight is like that too…

  5. Just a technical point: I tried to order this book from the bookseller downstairs, but the ISBN (which I checked and re-checked) wasn’t in the lists of either of the main book wholesalers, Gardners and Bertrams. I reluctantly ordered it through Amazon UK instead; but if the two main UK wholesalers haven’t heard of it, someone in the Houghton Mifflin sales department shouldn’t get his Christmas bonus. If Mary Sharratt reads this, tell your agent to have harsh words with the publisher (which should be done every hour on the hour anyway, on general principles).

  6. I finished reading The Vanishing Point last night, and greatly enjoyed it. At first it brought back memories of The Sot-Weed Factor, but when I realised that nobody was going to announce “I am a poet and a virgin”, I settled in and found it gripping. It wasn’t at all marred by modern sensibilities, as I had feared, in spite of the now apparently obligatory character of the Wise and Saintly Black Maid.

    The ISBN mystery only deepened when my copy arrived and I found that it carries two ISBN numbers, which is why I hadn’t been able to find it listed when I had looked it up under the other one. Does anyone know why this should be?

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