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.