I read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell for the Goodreads.com Mystery, Crime and Thriller group read.
EXCERPT: The volumes are enormous and weighty. Iris has to stand up to read them. A thick epidermis of dust has grown over the spine and the top edges of the pages. She opens one at random and the pages, yellowed and brittle fall open at May 1941. A woman called Amy is admitted by a Dr Wallis. Amy is a war widow and has suspected puerperal fever. She is brought in by her brother. He says she won’t stop cleaning the house. There is no mention of the baby and Iris wonders what happened to it. Did it live? Did the brother look after it? Did the brother’s wife? Did the brother have a wife? Did Amy get out again?
Iris flicks over a few more pages. A woman who was convinced that the wireless was somehow killing them all. A girl who kept wandering away from the house at night. A Lady somebody who kept attacking a particular servant. A Cockenzie fishwife who showed signs of libidinous and uncontrolled behaviour. A youngest daughter who eloped to Ireland with a legal clerk. Iris is just reading about a Jane who had the temerity to take long, solitary walks and refuse offers of marriage, when she is overtaken by a violent sneeze once, twice, three, four times.
She sniffs and searches her pockets for a tissue. The records room seems to be oddly silent after her sneezes. She glances around. It is empty apart from the man behind the desk and another man peering closely at something on a blue-lit microfiche screen. It seems strange that all these women were once here, in this building, that they spent days and weeks and months under this vast roof. As Iris turns out her pockets, it occurs to her that perhaps some of them are still here, like Esme. Is Jane of the long walks somewhere within these walls? Or the eloping youngest daughter?
ABOUT ‘THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX’: In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital – where she has been locked away for over sixty years. Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face. Esme has been labeled harmless – sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But Esme’s still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit?
MY THOUGHTS: It is many years since I first read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. While I may have forgotten the plot, I had not forgotten how bittersweet, sad, touching, yet absolutely magnificent this book was.
There are three narrators to this story: Esme, who has been incarcerated in Cauldstone, euphemistically called a psychiatric hospital where she has been incarcerated for more than sixty years; her older sister Kitty who now suffers from Alzheimer’s and is in a care home; and finally Iris, Kitty’s granddaughter, Iris’s great-neice who inherits her great-aunt when Cauldstone is closed down. The story is told over two timelines, from Kitty and Iris’s childhood through their womanhood, and the current day.
Each of the narrator’s stories is spellbinding. We learn a lot of Kitty’s story through her rambling and mostly disjointed thoughts. One thought will lead her to another without the first having been completed. You would think that this would be extremely annoying, but it’s not. It is a glimpse into the mind of someone with a form of dementia, where the past becomes the present. She does not recognize Iris, expecting her to still be a small child in a pretty dress, not a confident young woman.
Kitty was the ‘good’ child, the peacekeeper. Esme was enquiring, inventive, fiesty, independent. Rules were made to be broken. Iris didn’t want the responsibility of her chronically insane great-aunt. She has enough on her plate with her vintage clothing business, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, a married lover, and her step-brother Alex. She doesn’t have room in her life for any more complications.
This is a complex and compelling story. It combines a historical exposè of mental health treatment with the modern dilemma of what happens to those people who were confined for the majority of their lives when there was nothing wrong with them other than they were an embarrassment to their families.
The characters are incredibly interesting and believable. There are historic family secrets, and modern dilemmas. O’Farrell has written beautifully, capturing both the emotions of the characters and the atmosphere and social mores of the time with both accuracy and occasional flashes of humor.
There are books that stay with us for a long time. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is one such book for me.
THE AUTHOR: Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, MAGGIE O’FARRELL grew up in Wales and Scotland and now lives in London. She has worked as a waitress, chambermaid, bike messenger, teacher, arts administrator, and journalist in Hong Kong and London, and as the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday.
DISCLOSURE: I own my copy of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, written by Maggie O’Farrell, published by Headline Review. All opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own personal opinions.
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