The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley is historical fiction set in both Edinburgh and Leith, Scotland. The time periods vary from the late 1600s to the early 1700s, which both included the famous and oft-chronicled Jacobite uprisings. It’s a story of a young woman and the various (mostly non-biological) families she’s a part of during her youth.
During those times, young girls often began working in service to another family at quite a young age. Such is the case for Lily Aitcheson. Early on, her grandmother cares for her, and they live near a wealthy estate in rural Scotland. But as her grandmother gets older, she moves to Edinburgh when her father remarries. In doing so, she’s ripped away from her childhood playmates. These young people, related to the owner of the nearby estate, still figure in the rest of her story.
And yet, Lily’s basically on her own before she’s even got two digits in her age. She’s in service to a few families, some more loving than others. Told in hindsight, the whole story happens because she’s part of a governmental inquiry into her marital status. This commission determines whether people are truly entitled to even the smallest inheritances left by deceased men.
Most of Lily’s story is told by Sergeant Adam Williamson, lately of the colonies. He pieces together the story by talking to people who knew Lily, some long ago and others more recently. And while he does talk with her, he mostly seeks evidence beyond her assertions. It’s a sideways story about her life.
This particular storytelling method—mostly from second-hand knowledge—is frustrating. I often thought, “Well, is this new narrator reliable or lying?” And that’s the struggle our main narrator, Sergeant Williamson, faces as well. It’s his job to judge the evidence and, in fact, Lily herself.
In the midst of all the information about Lily, The Vanished Days conveys the complicated history of Scotland and England. The Scots fight for independence. The English dominate. And the Jacobites try again to bring King James and his descendants back to rule Scotland. The complex political story captivates authors and readers in many forms.
Unfortunately, I found long passages of Kearsley’s writing uncomfortably dry. I drifted through those sections and perked up again when focus returned to Lily and her crew of unique compatriots.
And hidden amongst all of this is a story of uncommon families and love. In this vanished society, some families treated their servants as family. Others used and abused them. And sometimes the line between those two states became hopelessly blurred. Kearsley makes a strong commentary on families of origin versus families of convenience, whether chosen or not.
Where Lily finds lasting love is among the other young people in her life. Whether she knew them in the days with her grandmother or in her city life, these friends never forget her. Nor does she fully forsake them, even when she must leave. This theme warmed my heart and kept me going through the historical complexities.
I always think of Kearsley as writing with a slightly magical component. In this case, that element is missing and I regret that. However, if you like straight historical fiction and the world of Jacobite revolts, then give The Vanished Days a try.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Sourcebooks Landmark, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review. The publication date is October 5, 2021.