Book Review – The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I am belatedly getting through my Seasons Readings, with seven down and three to go and I just have to comment on how pleased I have been with the selection so far from everyone’s wonderful recommendations. The latest book from the list was Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I want to say from the beginning through to the end was a joy to read.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is set in the present-day and looks back 60-odd years previous in order to discover why the central character, Euphemia Esme Lennox (or Esme as she prefers to be known) has been in a psychiatric institution for most of her life. Brought up in India as a child and moved to Scotland as a young woman the wilful and unusual Esme is a handful for her parents and attracts attention from those about her, that is until her seemingly bad behaviour results in her being committed into mental care where she learns to make herself ‘vanish’. Flash forward to the present-day and Iris, who has a mixed-up enough life as it is, receives a phone call telling her that she has a relative she never knew existed and that the hospital is closing down. The two women’s lives begin to intertwine.

Events leading up to the present day are revealed through memories, mainly Esme’s and also those of her sister Kitty whose mind has been damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. I would expect to find this a difficult writing style, but I thought it was very effective and surprisingly, not confusing at all. The story flows smoothly and O’Farrell is able to keep back some of the plot twists very well back through this method, gently unravelling the story and giving you little glimpses as the book goes on. I was impressed with the way that the modern environment was contrasted with the scenes of a completely different generation. I enjoyed the way that the family’s life in India was visualised – the sites and sounds were so vivid and unusual:

“There it was. The weeping, the slow weeping of rubber trees leaking their fluid… Esme tilted her head this way and that, still with her eyes tight shut, and listened to the sound of trees crying.”

But in the rigid social norms of early 20th Century Scotland, people had dramatically different expectations of women. It seems to have been a time where you could be locked up in a psychiatric ward on the simple say-so of your parents and left there to rot. This theme reminded me of how shocked I was by this when I read Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White and also the threat of this kind of incarceration which is underlying in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle.

Despite the sad events in the novel there are some wonderful themes of a young woman blossoming and I Esme’s bright individual personality was a pleasure to read. O’Farrell skilfully conjured up melancholy but beautiful images, such as when Iris first meets Esme at the hospital:

“Iris sees the woman turn, first her head, then her neck, then her body. It seems to take an extraordinarily long time and Iris is reminded of an animal uncurling from sleep.”

I was very impressed with this novel. I thought that the writing style was both gentle and poignant and yet still managed to cover some very tough events without being melodramatic. I found it very moving, and I was surprised that I didn’t cry reading this, but thinking back, the reason I didn’t may have been to do with the way that the character of Esme herself was so strong. I think that The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is an excellent piece of writing and was thoroughly absorbed in it from start to finish. Recommended!

Have you read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox or other Maggie O’Farrell novels?

21 responses to “Book Review – The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. this book has been on my wish list for a while now and I must get round to getting it, so thankyou for the review

  2. What a lovely review. I have paused by this book several times at the library and wondered what it would be like. Next time I will pick it up (hope it’s still there!)

    • Thanks Tracey, definitely a good one to get out of the library. I’d meant to read it for ages and am glad I got around to it eventually!

  3. This sounds wonderful. I’m totally adding it to my TBR list. Thanks for the review! 🙂

  4. I have read The Distance Between Us and really liked it. I had tried to read Esme before and couldn’t get into it. But now that I have read another of her books and loved it, I think it is time to try again. And now the publisher has sent me an advance copy of her newest novel. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

    • It’s funny because when I saw the other titles in the back of the book I somehow wasn’t sure if I would fancy reading them but then again, I enjoyed this so much that it would probably make sense to give them a go. Lucky you with the advance copy! Will look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  5. A lovely review of one of my favourite books. Whenever I need to give a gift to a difficult-to-buy-for friend or relative, this is what I give. Everyone seems to love it. I’m really looking forward to O’Farrell’s new novel and can’t wait for it to come out!

    • It’s nice to be able to give a book and trust that it will be enjoyed! I’m excited that there’s a new book coming out, and I’ll have to read her back catalogue.

  6. I have read After You’d Gone which I thought was wonderful but I haven’t got round to reading this one. Great review, perhaps I shall give it a look now!

    • Dot, I think that this would be right up your street. It’s a fab book and if you enjoyed her other writing I’m sure that you will this.

  7. I am so pleased you loved this book, I am actually puzzled by why its not in my top 40 books because it deserves to be. I found the fact this was going on so recently was really shocking to me. I think you should try The Secret Scripture if you havent already I think you might like that one too! Ha, helpfully adding more books to your TBR as ever!

    • Ooh you are naughty adding more and more books to my list! Such a good recommendation this was Simon. You’re a star!

  8. I had this on my shelves, but my mum borrowed it last year before I had chance to read it. I think I will have to ask her to read it soon, or at least read it when I visit at Easter. t sounds too good to miss!

  9. I need to seek this out as I have heard such good things about it.

    I love novels about women with mental illness in previous centuries and how this often occurred as a means of a husband attempting to control his wife. Mary Wollstonecraft writes about it wonderful in Mary: or, the Wrongs of Woman as does Sarah Waters in Fingersmith (which has a scene in it that reminds me very much of the mental hospital dinner scene in The Bell Jar).

    You may be interested in an article today on the Guardian that discusses Esme Lennox and similar literature:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/feb/23/novels-about-women-in-bedlam

  10. *my mind is not with it today: I meant to write Maria: or, the wrongs of women; Mary is her other novel.

    Also, Fingersmith is very much influenced by The Woman in White, hence the asylum section.

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  13. Lovely review – thoroughly agree. I found this book totally mesmerising. One of the best authors I’ve read for many years. Maggie O’Farrell is a genius and I’ll now be seeking out the other books asap.

    • novelinsights

      Hi Ursula – it is totally absorbing isn’t it. I would definitely like to read more of her books.

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