I’m still trying to pick out and read the books I’m not sure I want to keep–ones that got a lot of buzz but may or may not actually live up to them. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell, is one such book.
The premise is that one day, Iris Lockheart gets a call from Cauldstone Hospital asking for her decision about her great-aunt Esme Lennox. The mental hospital for women is closing, and after sixty years of staying there Esme is deemed harmless enough to transition back into the real world.
The trouble is, Iris never knew Esme existed. Her own parents are dead, and her grandmother Kitty, who always claimed to be an only child, is in a nursing home herself with Alzheimer’s. Iris also has her own troubles to deal with–her relationship with her step-brother Alex and her affair with a married man–but somehow she finds herself drawn to her new-found relative.
O’Farrell writes the story from both Iris and Esme’s perspective. Esme isn’t necessarily an unreliable narrator, but her viewpoint is wandering and sometimes fragmented. She recalls things incompletely and revisits them later, especially concerning her early life, which makes the book more suspenseful. Even with Iris’s own story, O’Farrell carefully chooses what to reveal and when.
We learn a lot about Esme and Kitty’s childhood in India and eventually Scotland. Esme is a dreamy child who rebels against conventions. She has always been thought of as just a little strange, which a traumatic experience does nothing to help, but she is intelligent and could have gone to college if she were allowed. Instead she is stifled by what is expected of an Edwardian young woman, until a final desperate act causes her family to lock her away.
The bulk of the book is so sad–Esme’s experiences growing up, her empty life at the hospital, and what Iris learns about how all-too-common this plight was. I almost don’t want to think about the fact that things like this probably really happened to flighty daughters or mothers with PPD. As much as I like historical fiction, there are many advantages to our modern world. On the other hand, Iris’ part of the story feels unnecessary at times, an extra drama that detracts from the mood of the main threads. I also dislike when books have ambiguous or unresolved endings.
Overall, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is well-written, but incredibly haunting rather than enjoyable. It’s one I see myself remembering instead of rereading. Even if this book goes to the sale pile, which it still might, I highly recommend it.