The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley – a powerful historical novel of a woman’s claims in a volatile time

The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

A historical novel of great personality and power, this book quickly becomes absorbing as various stories are told. The narrator is never intentionally unreliable, but his involvement in the main story of an attractive young woman seeking to prove a vital fact in her past is meant to be accidental and temporary. As such he has to gather witnesses and those few people left who remember something of what truly happened to her. Thus there is the present (in 1707) construction of a story which is recounted around the investigations of a Sergeant Adam Williamson into a claim that the mysterious Lily was married to a sailor, James, who was part of the ill fated Darien expedition eight years before the novel is set. As part of trying to settle the uneasy relationship, the newly created Union, between Scotland and England, a fund has been established to pay out modest settlements to the widows of the men who died. Thus Lily is claiming on the basis of her marriage which was “irregular” in the eyes of the established church, and is therefore difficult to prove. Caught up in the investigation almost by accident, Williamson has the idea that all is far from what it seems and that he must proceed with caution in a volatile city and area which has many secrets and unspoken dangers. 

This is an admirably written book which invests even barely glimpsed characters with vivid life, as well as expanding on the main protagonists. The younger Lily is an engaging character, as not only her challenging life is recounted, but her deep fears and grief is explored. She obviously becomes a girl and woman whose mere name can provoke a strong reaction, let alone those who meet her as an adult. Williamson is almost rendered speechless at his first sight of her, and those whose memory of her is vivid become keen to re-engage with her. The writing in this novel is so evocative of a childhood spent in the countryside in the benign care of a local influential family, where she first apparently met James. A childhood game is based on the running disputes between Scottish Covenanters and those who opposed them, and the whole story takes place against a background of political upheaval made personal in a brilliant way. This countryside is contrasted with the crowded and often dangerous streets and alleyways of Edinburgh, where safety is not ever to be guaranteed, and loyalties and friendship may not be enough to safeguard a small girl. The settings of this novel almost become characters in the novel as they are so important to the narrative and so vividly described. 

The writing is sometimes dynamic and urgent, sometimes reflective, but always skilful. It implies the treatment of Lily and others rather than bold statements, the reader discovers some of the secrets of the past alongside the curious Williamson, who is warned early in the novel “If ye let harm come to Lily, I’ll not forget that”. It also analyses some of the emotions behind the narrative “Sometimes, when all seems darkness and despair, hope is the only thing that does remain for us to grasp”

I found this to be an enthralling and totally engaging book which I thoroughly enjoyed. It presents vivid accounts of the lives of people over a long period, and is often moving and always effective in telling quite a complex series of stories. Lily’s story is recounted in such a clever way that I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and thoroughly recommend it.