Monday, 16 August 2010
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
Esme Lennox has spent nearly all of her adult life in a psychiatric institute, and when the institution is being closed down, and all the patients re-located, she is judged to be no danger to herself or society, so is being released into the community. Her named family member is Iris Lockhart, her great-niece, but the first problem here is that Iris doesn’t know of her existence since she had always been told that her grandmother was an only child. And just to throw another spanner in the works, Kitty, Iris’s grandmother is herself in an institution, with fairly advanced alzheimers, so is unable to answer when Iris asks about Esme.
Esme and Kitty grew up in India, in a relatively well-to-do, society family, where there were huge expectations placed upon them on the proper way to behave. Having suffered a horrific family tragedy they return from India to Scotland when the sisters are still young, to live with their paternal grandmother, who makes even more of proprieties and conforming than their parents. Kitty falls into line with this, and even revels in it, but Esme becomes more and more averse to the ideas purported by her family, and wants to go her own way, and do her own thing. She doesn’t like dancing, enjoys books and doesn’t want to get married. Her ‘unruly’ behaviour leads her parents to despair of her, although in fact all she is doing is refusing to conform to expectations.
So why was Esme locked away at sixteen years of age, and why does nobody know of her existence? What secrets are waiting to be discovered? The answer to that is plenty, but they are revealed slowly and in a very non-linear way throughout the book. The book jumps around both from point of view and in time, as it is told from the viewpoints of Iris, Esme and Kitty. From Iris we see what is happening with Esme and how she goes about dealing with the knowledge and physical presence of a relative she didn’t know she had. The sections told from Esme’s point of view are a little more confusing, as she jumps between the present and the past, as something that happens will remind her of her previous life and she goes off into a reverie about life in the asylum, or before she was committed. And then probably the most illuminating sections are the chunks of internal stream of consciousness thought from Kitty, whose sections are difficult to read, but read in conjunction with Esme’s memories, eventually create a complete picture of the events that lead to Esme’s committal and abandonment.
The two sisters are portrayed really well through the varying narratives, and it’s easy to see how Esme was different when she is juxtaposed with her sister, who tried to do everything that was expected of her, make the good marriage, take up embroidery and the like. That juxtaposition was necessary, both to illuminate how a well-to-do girl of this era should behave, and show how Esme’s rebellion would have been viewed by their social circle. Ultimately though it is Esme I felt sorry for, and Kitty who comes across as selfish, self-absorbed and superficial. I actually felt angry reading this book at what Esme went through at the hands of her family, more and more so as more of the truth was revealed in glimpses from the sisters memories.
I really enjoyed this book, particularly the actual act of reading the disjointed narratives and piecing them all together to try and decide what really happened. It does however paint a pretty damning picture of life for women in the early part of the 20th century, particularly if they want to veer even slightly off course from what is expected of them. I think this is what interested me most about this story. This subject has cropped up in a few novels, and each time it does I get the urge to find out more about the reality of this, and then ever do. Maybe this time I will.