Review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
I happened upon Maggie O’Farrell’s book, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, in a small library in the East End of London. The synopsis on the back instantly captivated me:
Edinburgh in the 1930s. The Lennox family is having trouble with its youngest daughter. Esme is outspoken, unconventional, and repeatedly embarrasses them in polite society. Something will have to be done.
Years later, a young woman named Iris Lockhart receives a letter informing her that she has a great-aunt in a psychiatric unit who is about to be released. Iris has never heard of Esme Lennox and the one person who should know more, her grandmother Kitty, seems unable to answer Iris’ questions. What could Esme have done to warrant a lifetime in an institution? And how is it possible for a person to be so completely erased from a family’s history?
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a rich, layered novel. As I was reading it for the second time, I tried to think of an author I’ve read who is nearly detailed, who can write such sensuous passages such as “In the distance somewhere she can hear her sister’s skipping rope hitting the ground and the short shuffle of feet in between. Slap shunt slap shunt slap shunt. She turns her head, listening for other noises. The brr-cloop-brr of a bird in the mimosa branches, a hoe in the garden soil- scritch, scritch- and, somewhere, her mother’s voice. She can’t make out the words, but she knows it’s her mother talking.”
In the end, the only author I could possibly think of to compare O’Farrell to is her fellow Briton, Ian McEwan.
As in all of her books, O’Farrell skillfully switches between the 1930s and 2000s, from Esme’s story, to Iris’, to Kitty’s, dropping little bits of story as she goes. And while Esme’s story is less linear than Iris’ straightforward narrative, her mind slipping between the two time periods, Kitty’s is the most intriguing. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Kitty thinks in incomplete paragraphs, sentences broken off halfway through when something distracts her and steers her mind in another direction. One might think it would be confusing, but O’Farrell manages to remind you exactly where she left you without going back and reviewing.
Esme’s story is a shocking and sad one; seen as “different” for her curiosity and passion as a young child, her family never looks at her any other way. As she gets older, she continues to feel things just as deeply, and resist the things she doesn’t want: cutting her hair, going to the pictures with a cocky young man who’s supposed to like her sister anyway, wearing dull colors to a dance. For this, she is seen as an embarrassment, and when she is caught one day dancing in front of the mirror in her mother’s nightgown, her parents decide that it’s time for her to go somewhere where she will learn how to behave. They send her to an institution, where the extraordinary but sane sixteen year old will spend the days before she “gets better.”
As soon as Iris hears of this estranged great-aunt, she is asked to house the woman she’s never met. Before going to pick her up, Iris does some research, only to find that most of the women in Esme’s institution were put away for things that seem, to her, minor: “Iris read of refusals to speak, of unironed clothes, of arguments with neighbours, of hysteria, of unwashed dishes and unswept floors, of never wanting marital relations or wanting them too much or not enough to not in the right way or seeking them elsewhere. Of husbands at the end of their tethers, of parents unable to understand the women their daughters have become […] Daughters who just don’t listen.” Esme’s crimes are her uncut hair and trying on her mother’s clothes, and Iris is unconvinced, especially after meeting her great-aunt, that the woman was ever actually insane.
O’Farrell has the amazing ability to write in a way that makes the reader feel the emotions of the character, not just observe them from outside the page. Using a mix of sensuous words, run-on sentences, and sparse dialogue, O’Farrell makes sure the reader feels within them Esme’s panic or Iris’ frustration or Kitty’s confusion, and she does it in every paragraph.
The best part of this book by far is the slow reveal of the story, the little hints O’Farrell drops here and there that make complete, shocking sense by the end. It was only on this second read through that I understood what happened in the last moments of the book, and it made the novel all the better. I love this book and feel like I’m not saying enough about it, but it’s hard to discuss without giving away plot points. So just go and read it. Do it now!
Her parents and sister were going ‘up country’, to a house party… Esme was staying behind because she was in disgrace for having walked along the driveway in bare feet. It had happened two days ago, on an afternoon so scorching her feet wouldn’t fit into her shoes. It hadn’t even occurred to her that it wasn’t allowed until her mother rapped on the drawing room window and beckoned her back inside. The pebbles of the driveway had been sharp under her soles, pleasurably uncomfortable.
She’d sat up and the fury was within her, and instead of saying, please give me my book, she said, I want to stay on at school.
She hadn’t meant to. She knew it wasn’t the time to bring this up, that it would get nowhere, but it felt sore within her, this desire, and she couldn’t help herself. The words came out from where they’d been hidden. Her hands felt strange and useless without the book and the need to stay at school had risen up and come out of her mouth without her knowing.
You are not well, the nurses tell her. You are not well, the doctor says. And Esme thinks she may be starting to believe this […] Later, during her long-awaited appointment with the doctor, she tells him she is feeling better. Those are the words she must use. She must let them know that she, too, thinks she has been ill; she must acknowledge that they were right after all. There has been something wrong with her but now she is mended.