Book Review: IN THE VANISHING HOUR by Sarah Beth Martin

This fall, I waited impatiently for IN THE VANISHING HOUR by Sarah Beth Martin to finally drop. I was drawn by the gorgeous, slightly-menacing gloom and green of the cover and the promise of a mystery with psychological depth and lovely writing style.

I was not disappointed. 

In fact, everything about this book delighted me, so much so that I read it slowly, savoring the atmosphere and the language. Martin knows her way around a sentence, my friends. She also knows how to dive deep into the psyche while still managing to hold onto some secrets. A feat of craftsmanship. Let me explain: 

IN THE VANISHING HOUR is a mid-20th century dual timeline and dual protagonist story. Reading it feels like taking a deep dive (yes, that’s intended) into the murky depths and currents of a person’s mind. In 1951, an adolescent boy drowns in the Charles River in the town of Norumbega. His death devastates the family, and the boy’s younger sister, Frances, becomes…stuck. She’s a dreamy child, haunted by imagination or ghosts or both. By 1959, she’s an immature new adult, working in a local department store and led around by the nose by her pushy friend, Iris. 

Frances has dreams for her life, but she’s unable to move toward them. 

That year, Frances falls under the pleasant spell of a new employee, a female model with the same red hair as Frances but with much more vivaciousness and style. When this young women ALSO drowns in the Charles that year, Iris convinces Frances to “investigate” a trio of hoodlums who spend their evenings hanging out at the local amusement park.

One of that trio is Harris. He is the other character into whose mind we are allowed entry. We first overhear his thoughts in the year 1974, fifteen years after the second drowning. He’s become an architect and has left his buddies in Norumbega behind. But then he’s hired to work on a project at the old amusement park site and is reunited with his old friends…and his memories.

The most fascinating part of Martin’s book is the clever way she allows us deep into Frances’s and Harris’s thoughts while keeping the secrets stored there. It’s about the memories we skirt around in our own minds, thoughts we avoid thinking–whether because of grief, confusion, sadness, fear, or guilt. When Frances and Harris refuse to think about certain incidents (they often come right up to the edge and shudder and step back), we the readers can’t get at them either! 

We are drawn along the corridors of their minds, gathering little crumbs when they are dropped in less guarded moments, trying to “solve” the mystery or at least uncover what happened to the boy and the young woman.

It’s not until these two finally face their memories–and discover a few new artifacts hidden in mud and family history–that they and we learn the truth about what happened to the two people who drowned in the Charles fifteen years apart, the connection between them, and the secrets behind the tragedies that changed the course of several people’s lives.

It’s brilliant. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys books with a mid-century setting, dual timeline stories, mysteries with some whodunit characteristics, psychological deep dives, and delightful literary prose.

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