When Tom Pawlik’s sophomore novel Valley of the Shadow released this year, it piqued my interest enough to look into its predecessor, Vanish. When I read the synopsis online the story’s premise dug its claws into me and wouldn’t let go.
Selected as an Operation First Novel winner in 2006 by Jerry B. Jenkins’ Christian Writers Guild, Vanish was published in 2008 by Tyndale. It then went on the win a highly respected Christy Award in the Visionary category. With the scent of speculative Christian fiction wafting from every description of the book, how could I resist?
Lawyer Conner Hayden is a man obsessed with his work. The emotional distance he cultivated between himself and his family following the backyard drowning of his young son Matthew have resulted in divorce from his wife and alienation from his daughter. One night he watches an immense black storm roll towards his house, containing strange flashes of light within it. When he wakes he finds himself alone in a deserted city.
It isn’t long before he encounters strange, inhuman creatures – watching, following, and waiting. Conner soon encounters other travelers through this barren landscape – a boy who won’t speak; a Harley riding mechanic; an aging, small-time actress; a couple of young thugs; and an elderly farmer. Each struggles with burdens from the past that appear in the form of incredibly vivid hallucinations as they are pursued by the mysterious, relentless, and increasingly malicious beings.
After first noting the excellent book design (eerie-contemporary within and without) the next thing that struck me was the limp prose. After barely making it to the storm scene, I was struggling through pages intended to develop character — but didn't — stilted dialogue, and a resulting lack of interest in the story. However, after Conner’s discovery of an empty world and the introduction of the strange grey figures with spider-like fingers, the pace picked up significantly.
While Pawlik’s opening chapters were weak, it’s the suspenseful pacing that found me finishing the novel inside of 24 hours. He had my train of thought dashing down all of the expected rabbit trails given the scenario laid out. In truth, I was surprised by the unfolded revelation as the book reached its climax.
The Christian message found in Vanish is likewise largely hidden in the first portions of the novel. While initially only present in the conflict between Conner and his Christian wife and daughter, the unmistakable themes of forgiveness and redemption are clearly revealed by books end.
Pawlik’s premise is undeniably unique, despite what could be misunderstood as plot devices held in common with other “Where did everyone go?” titles such as Offworld or Left Behind. If you can endure the first five chapters or so (they are admittedly brief) while you’re waiting for the action to kick in, Vanish will provide an entertaining, fast-paced read filled with suspense, mystery, and even a few goose bump raising, heart-pounding moments.