Monday, May 24, 2010

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell (2006)

On Saturday my youngest son had a badminton tournament so I wanted to have a gripping, fast read to keep me occupied during the long waits we have between matches. Out of my stack of library books, I chose this book by Maggie O'Farrell. I have read one of her books before, her debut novel "After You'd Gone" which I remembered as being gripping, un-put-downable, and with a twist at the end. So I thought this might be just the right kind of book!

Indeed it was! The story hooked me in from the get-go. Esme Lennox, of the title of the book, is the key character. She is a 70-something woman who has been kept in a mental institution in Edinburgh for 60 years. Her great-niece, Iris Lockhart, receives word that she is Esme's only remaining relative and is suddenly responsible for Esme, whom she never even knew existed before now. The mental institution is due to close and Iris has to make arrangements for Esme's further care.

Iris discovers that Esme was Iris's grandmother's younger sister. Iris's grandmother, Kathleen, who is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's, is no help in sorting out the mystery of why Esme was put in a mental home at the age of 16 and never released, never visited, never acknowledged as being a member of the family. As she learns more and more and gets to know Esme personally, she unearths long buried family secrets that have an enormous impact on her life.

This was a well-written story that moves along and is very hard to put down! The scenes of Esme and Kathleen's early childhood in colonial India and return to Scotland are well done - we can easily imagine the culture shock it must have been to move to such a different place for the two young girls. I also loved how the book not only focused on Esme, but is in fact the story of three women's lives: Kathleen and Iris are more than just side characters, the author's development of them adds great depth to the story and helps us understand more about the family and societal dynamics that led to the great tragedy of Esme's life.

Ultimately, this is a book about identity and how it is intertwined with our family and our ancestors as well as our descendants. As Esme realizes after she meets Iris:

We are all...just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, and then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003)

I was so glad I found this in my library. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and was also one of Oprah's ten books she chose that made the most impact on her in the past ten years (latest issue of Oprah magazine). So I knew it would be thought-provoking.

The story follows various characters in Manchester County, Virginia in the mid 1800's, a time when white landowners had black slaves. What I didn't know is that free black landowners sometimes also had slaves, and one of the main characters in the book is Henry Townsend, a black farmer with a large estate and many slaves. Henry has done well due to the good graces of the County's most powerful white landowner, William Robbins, who allowed Henry's father to first purchase his own freedom and then his wife's and finally his son's. Before he had enough money to free his son, Robbins made Henry his personal valet and taught him much of what made him able to be successful when he finally had his own estate.

We become acquainted with so many characters: white, black, Native American; free, enslaved; educated, uneducated; those with values and morals and those with no scruples. This book also gives an incredible close view of life in those times: how people ate, worked, interacted, loved and hated. We see the lack of freedom of the slaves but also the other "second-hand citizens" of those times, i.e women, Native Americans, homosexuals. The portrayal of this society is also surprisingly violent, especially the conclusion of the novel.

The story is elegantly woven and tips back and forth between many characters, different points in time, and various points of view. Sometimes it is difficult to remember which character is which - as a reader you must be attentive with this book. But it is well worth it as towards the end you have a wide view of the humanity and inhumanity in Manchester County. I do agree that it is thought-provoking, eye-opening and very well written, and I learned a lot reading it.