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Originally published Friday, March 30, 2012 at 5:32 AM

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Book review

"The Vanishers:" a troubled psychic probes the past

Heidi Julavits's new novel "The Vanishers" is narrated by Julia, a 26-year-old psychic struggling with her unusual gifts. Julavits reads Wednesday at Seattle's University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Heidi Julavits

The author will read from and sign copies of "The Vanishers" at 7 p.m. Wednesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.bookstore.washington.edu).
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Like a dream that mashes disparate realities in the subconscious, Heidi Julavits' latest novel unsettles.

"The Vanishers" (Doubleday, 279 pp., $26.95) is told in the first person by Julia Severn, a 26-year-old psychic with a haunting personal history: When she was 1-month-old, her mother committed suicide.

As a toddler, Julia is diagnosed with "electromagnetic hyperactivity ... By the time I was eight I could darken streetlamps by walking beneath them." Regressing into others' pasts is one of her talents as an adult.

When "The Vanishers" begins, Julia is a student at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology in New Hampshire. She is the acolyte of a professor, Madame Ackerman, a woman of "epic allure." Julia's adulation of the less-than-deserving Madame Ackerman has elements of a paranormal "The Devil Wears Prada."

After Julia and Madame Ackerman have a falling out, the story moves briefly to Manhattan, where Julia, felled by mysterious illnesses, lives nearly as a hermit. Then the enigmatic Colophon and Alwyn enter her life. They are involved in "a suicide-prevention service ... a type of witness-protection program for people who weren't in danger of being killed by anyone but themselves." The pair arrange for Julia to be moved to an exclusive "psychic attack recovery facility" in Vienna. Once cured, Julia is to track down Dominique Varga, an infamous feminist pornographer and creator of fake snuff films whose latest performance-art experiments involve plastic surgery.

But the most fascinating locations in "The Vanishers" are those experienced only through Julia's gift. Looking for clues to Varga, she visits the apartment of a paparazzo who shows her a surprising snapshot: "I passed a hand over the photo. The veins on the underside of my wrist twanged, a taut pulling of melancholy threads. Then it happened. The regression wasn't painless or dreamy, it was the physiological equivalent of being reduced to a mess of protons and accelerated through the Hadron collider, of being looped at light speed and crashed into other protons that had also, once, been part of me. I coagulated into a crunchy mass in the Parisian hotel lobby, my body a casing for glass shards ... "

Themes of loss, reinvention and the ways women build each other up and tear each other down — beginning with mothers and daughters — run through "The Vanishers."

But Julavits ("The Uses of Enchantment," "The Effect of Living Backwards") balances the emotional vertigo with sharp wit: "Psychic attacks ... both the conscious and the unconscious varieties, had become rampant among the nonpsychic population — among members of book groups, for example. People were attacking each other via shared texts. Many more attacks were launched through social media sites ... "

And her turns of phrase can be exquisite: An October evening in New Hampshire has "icebox air, onyx sky"; someone Julia feels grievously harmed her "deserved to have every ounce of marrow sucked from her bones by a hummingbird"; Julia's mother and Madame Ackerman wore their long, black hair "parted in the middle, the ends narrowing to a point on her back like a damp paintbrush."

"The Vanishers' " time-warp complexities and characters' shifting motives can be confusing. But, like a dream, it's never anything but intriguing.

Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a desk editor at The Seattle Times.

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