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.


Hannah Stoneham said...

I have hearda a lot of good things about this one and personally am also very interested in the history of mental health care - as far as I can work out, many people (especially women) were incarcerated for all manner of reasons and i would be interested to explore more. So glad to read that you enjoyed this and that it prooved to be good "waiting mum" reading.

Thanks for sharing

Kathy said...

This sounds awesome! And I have actually read After You'd Gone too, and loved that one! Thanks for the review. I'm glad to know about this book--adding it to my TBR!