Monday, 16 August 2010

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was a book I found impossible to put down, and one that will stay with me for a long time. It had an odd structure, written from three perspectives and without any real chapters, but I really just couldn’t stop turning the pages. For a book, that can only be high praise!

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.

9 comments:

Kathy said...

Oooh! I've been wanting to read this ever since I heard about it from Amy at In Consideration of Books. Have you ever read anything else by O'Farrell? I only know one of her other books, After You'd Gone, but I really liked that one.

Jessica said...

I have a copy and must must get around to reading some time.

Jo said...

Kathy, I haven't read any others, they have never really appealed. I did love this one, so I will keep a look out for her others.

Jessica, It really is worth reading!

farmlanebooks said...

I've just finished reading this one and although I enjoyed it I was a bit disappointed. I had only heard people raving about it, but I thought it was a bit predictable. I did race through it, but for some reason I expected it to be a bit deeper. I have several other Maggie O'Farrell books and I am still looking forward to reading them, but my expectations will be a bit lower :-)

Jo said...

Jackie, I'm sorry this didn't live up to expctations for you. I suppose it was predictable. Apart from the very last few pags, I had figured most of it out. But for me, that didn't detract from my emotional response to it which I think is what made me enjoy this.

Clare said...

Thanks, this is a great review. Please check out my blog as well.
http://clarestone.blogspot.com/
Thank you.

Birdy said...

Intriguing! I will definitely check this book out :)

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santhi priya said...


A truly motivational and life changing book
me: A truly motivational and life changing book
This book is really a good book which shows us right path. but i read
one more book named "ONE BOOK FOR LIFE SUCCESS" which is truly
motivational and life changing . .The writer has described in Plain
English with lot of examples which is easy to understand...For More
Please watch the videohttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biORjS8ng